The genius of Plato was both in recognizing the reality of these competing features of the human psyche, and in realizing that ultimately it is the rational portion that must stand apart from the horses and act as the ‘guardian’ of the entire self, rather than the hopelessly inadequate servant to the fractious elements, competing for its efforts. The genius of Orwell, whether he quite knew it or not, was in recognizing that modern man had surrendered responsibility for the charioteer by embracing men like Skinner and Freud, and that nothing good would ever come of it.
The following essay is one outcome from my previous "research notebook" post. It is the second of four complete drafts. The fourth was the "official" work, sent off into the academic ether. This draft, however, is one I'm posting to my blog, because it offers a lot of food for thought, and isn't meant to be a completely polished argument. I want it to serve as a mile-marker, offering an opportunity for discussion and debate, and signifying my thinking thus far, on the topic. I hope you get some use out of it.
I am working on crafting a meaningful answer to the question posed in this heading. But I have decided that the question can’t be answered until two subordinate questions can be answered. The first is “What is The Will”? and the second, “What is Freedom”? I am holding off on the latter question, for now. The following, is a compilation of my collected notes and remarks on the will itself. Hopefully, you’ll find it useful, too.
What Is The Will?
The short answer is I don’t know. It is entirely unclear to me what, exactly, the “will” is. According to Schopenhauer1, it is a black box int which you pump motives and out of which you receive intentions to act that are utterly compelling. According to Peter Ulric Tse2, the will is:
Whatever it is that triggers actions in the domains of voluntary or endogenous motors or internal actions…
But this just sounds to me like a modern reiteration of Schopenhauer’s “volition… directed toward an object…”. Dennett3 urges us to “trade in mystery for mechanisms”, but as far as I can tell, we’ve just traded one mystery for another in the idea of a “will” as a real thing. I’m not sure it even makes sense to talk about it as a verb, either. In most of the modern scientific literature, authors speak in terms of consciousness, or parts of consciousness as biological processes or interrelated systems or networks of systems. The will, it seems, has been dissolved by the acid of modern neuroscience.
Can we even answer this question, then? If there is no “will”, in the sense that Schopenhauer, Kant, or Hume might have thought of it, then it would seem there could be no answer. But would it still work to think of the term as a generalizing metaphor (as Tse has done) to capture all the various processes into one convenient basket of thought? The danger here, it seems to me, is in the fact that metaphors encourage ignorance and frequently propagate destructive misconceptions. I would rather try to work with the bits I do understand, as incomplete as that might be, than to fool myself into thinking I’m with something that doesn’t exist.
But what do I understand? What bits am I working with? Since this is fundamentally a question that extends far beyond the scope of my own understanding (and indeed, still somewhat beyond the scope of the modern science of the mind) the best I’m going to be able to do is craft a tentative answer, cobbled together from a synthesis of scientific and philosophical sources. Let’s see what they have to say.
Robert Kane4 provides us with a nice encapsulation of the classical understanding of “will”, as a rational faculty of ‘practical reasoning’:
… practical reasoning can issue in two kinds of judgment – practical (normative) judgments, on the one hand, about what ought to be done… and choices or decisions, on the other hand, which announce that the agent ‘will’ do such-and-such… Thus ‘the will’ (as ‘rational will’, in the sense we are considering) is a set of conceptually interrelated powers or capacities, including the powers to deliberate, or to reason practically, to choose or decide, to make practical judgments, to form intentions or purposes, or to critically evaluate reasons for actions…
This is a definition of the will from the outside, so to speak. A description of the experience, or the observation of, conscious decision-making and the actions consequent to that decision-making. It is not quite the same thing as what Schopenhauer short-handed as “I can do as I will”. This view of practical reasoning might be better thought of, in Schopenhauer’s terms, as “I can will as I will”.
The notion in the passage from Kane seems to be echoed as well, by Mark Balaguer5, who says this:
…We want free will in connection with a certain subset of our conscious decisions. In particular, we want it in connection with what we can call ‘torn’ decisions. Torn decisions can be defined as… a conscious decision in which you have multiple options and you’re torn as to which is best; more precisely, you have multiple options that seem to you to be more or less tied for best, so that you feel completely unsure… and you decide while you feel torn…
This implicitly invokes the sense of practical reasoning and judgment outlined by Kane, in its description of the kinds of situations faced when such a faculty is necessary. However, it’s still not quite clear where this capacity resides, or how we would identify it.
Anyway, for all it’s apparent precision, Kane’s explanation is admittedly ‘conceptual’, and these interrelated ‘powers’ and ‘capacities’ just seem to be metaphors, rather than theories of mental functions. At least Tse’s basic sketch (more on that later) is referring to specific structures of the brain ‘triggered’ by ‘whatever’. Though, at the moment, this is still only slightly more specific than Schopenhauer’s ‘flint and steel’.
The Schopenhauer Problem
On the question of free will, Schopenhauer set up a dichotomy in his famous essay. Either you think you’re free because you are ‘free to do as you will’, or you think you’re determined because you’re not ‘free to will what you will’. Reading through the Oxford Readings in Philosophy text on free will6, every author in this book seems to accept this dichotomy explicitly, in the way they frame the problem.
The first essay in the book is by Chisolm7. This essay has apparently been ‘discredited’, according to a number of other authors in the book, but it still offers a number of thoughtful passages on the idea of the will itself, and the Schopenhauer dichotomy:
…even if there is such a faculty as ‘the will’, which somehow sets our acts a-going, the question of freedom, as John Locke said, is not the question ‘whether the will be free’; it is the question ‘whether a man be free’. For if there is a ‘will’, as a moving faculty, the question is whether the man is free to will to do the things that he does will to do – and whether he is free not to will any of those things that he does will to do, and again, whether he is free to will any of those things that he does not will to do…
Chisolm goes on to say this:
…the metaphysical problem of freedom does not concern actus imperatus; it does not concern the question whether we are free to accomplish whatever it is that we will or set out to do; it concerns the actus elicitus, the question whether we are free to will or set out to do those things that we will or set out to do…
It’s a slightly more readable version of the first passage, but it doesn’t include all of the combinations set out in the first. Eliminating them obscures the problem slightly. Probably a much more succinct way to put it, would be to say, ‘could I have willed otherwise’, in any situation of either action or inaction on my part. But this is slightly off topic.
Harry Frankfurt8 seems to reduce will to a collection of primitive desires, that necessarily compel action:
…the desire (or desires) by which [an agent] is motivated in some action he performs, or… the desire (or desires) by which he will or would be motivated when or if he acts. An agent’s will, then, is identical with one or more of his first-order desires…
He further tries to clarifies this, to be sure we understand that they are a specific set of desires:
…the notion of the will, as I am employing it, is not coextensive with the notion of first-order desires. It is not the notion of something that merely inclines an agent in some degree… Rather it is the notion of effective desire – one that moves (or would move) a person all the way to action…
The distinction between “inclinational” and “effective” desire is not entirely helpful. In fact, because this definition seems to work backward from apparent phenomena to explanatory theories, it seems circular to me. If I say that my will to act is ‘coextensive’ with whatever desire caused my action, I am saying that the will is only identifiable in observable acts, because observable acts come from the will. In other words: my will are my acts, because my acts are my will.
Frankfurt’s account gets even more paradoxical from here. He says this, for example:
… now consider… statements in which the term ‘to X’ refers to a desire of the first-order. There are also two kinds of situation in which it may be true that A wants to want X. In the first place, it might be true of A that he wants to have a desire to X despite the fact that he has a univocal desire, altogether free of conflict and ambivalence, to refrain from X. Someone might want to have a certain desire in other words, but univocally want that desire to be unsatisfied.
Why would anyone yearn for a desire that he could actively deny for the sake of the denial itself, unless he was some sort of fringe case of sadomasochistic schizophrenia? Frankfurt tries to answer this question with a hypothetical thought-experiment:
Suppose… that a [psychotherapist working] with narcotics addicts believes that his ability to help his patients would be enhanced if he understood better what it is like for them to desire the drug to which they are addicted. Suppose that he is led in this way to want to have a desire for the drug. If it is a genuine desire that he wants, then what he wants is not merely to feel the sensations that addicts characteristically feel when they are gripped by their desire for the drug. What the physician wants, in so far as he wants to have a desire, is to be inclined or moved to some extent to take the drug… he does not want this desire to be effective. He may not want it to move him all the way to action.
This example fails on three grounds, it seems to me. First, Frankfurt seems to be reducing the complex subtlety of emotional considerations in any given situation down to a binary of effective and ineffective desire. It essentially reduces the human capacity for empathy and understanding down to a kind of me-tooism. Why would a therapist think that the only way he could help his nation is to become the patient himself (at least, in some sense? Surely psychological training has tools for dealing with these sorts of issues that don’t require these kinds of bizarre and frankly dangerous measures. More to the point, there’s no reason to think that a therapist’s curiosity, or concern, or frustration, or wonder, can be equated directly with something like “ineffective” or “effective” desire. Lastly, in the form this example takes, you can see what he was avoiding in silhouette: namely, that the patient already must have a desire not to want what he already wants, and sometimes that desire wins. After all, this is why the patient is in treatment, presumably. The point here is that it’s not clear what the will really is. If we’re simply going to say, “yesterday, the patient’s will was not to take drugs, because he didn’t take drugs; today, the patient’s will is to take drugs because he took them”, we’re reducing the idea of the will to a triviality.
The rest of Frankfurt’s paper goes on to describe the interrelation of first-order and second-order desires. I am primarily interested in his conception of first-order desires, since this is where his notion of a genuine will resides. But these interactions are important, because they characterize the effective will. As he puts it, in relation to the therapist:
…a desire to have a certain desire that [one] does not have may not be a desire that [one’s] will should be at all different than it is…
In other words, one may not desire to act out a desire. Or, more simply, to will (make a desire effective). So again, we are left with a definition of the will that identifies it directly with the observable fact of action. Whatever those second-order desires are, they’re not part of the will. Frankfurt makes this relationship even more muddy, in section three of his essay:
…It is only because a person has volitions of the second-order that he is capable both of enjoying and of lacking freedom of the will. The concept of a person is not only, then, the concept of a type of entity that has both first-order desires and volitions of the second-order. It can also be construed as the concept of a type of entity for whom the freedom of its will may be a problem…
So, on Frankfurt’s view, the “will”, which is made up of only the first-order desires is determined, at least in the psychological sense, and requires second-order desires to condition it, or “free” it from its determination. But this suggests that the second-order is where the real “will” resides, since it seems to be capable of somehow overriding the first-order desires. Still, even if we take this at face value, we’re still only talking about psychological determination. In no sense is Frankfurt addressing the underlying physical question (i.e. causal necessity), as highlighted by Schopenhauer and Chisolm.
In short, the question comes down to one Frankfurt himself posed rhetorically to Chisolm: “Why, in any case, should anyone care whether he can interrupt the natural order of cause…?” Why, indeed. Frankfurt provides no account for this, himself, as far as I can tell. In fact, Frankfurt goes on to admit that all three of his hypothetical drug addicts have wills that are not really free, despite their willing being free. He says:
…It seems conceivable that it should be causally determined that a person is free to want what he wants to want. If this is conceivable, then it might be casually determined that a person enjoys a free will…
This seems to me, obtuse and contradictory. He’s attempting to claim that freedom is determined. I find this sort of speculation to be on the order of a “one hand clapping” kind of deepity (as Dennett use the term).
Wallace Grounds Frankfurt
R. Jay Wallace’s “Addiction as a defect of the will”9 tried to provide some model for the will through the lens of medicine. Taking Frankfurt’s hypothetical as serious inspiration, Wallace walks us through a more naturalistic theory, and criticizes Frankfurt in the process. To start with, Wallace picked up on the same problem I did:
…to say that we always do what we must want, where “want” can be interpreted in the sense of intention in action, is thus to say nothing more interesting than that human action is an intentional goal-directed phenomenon…
In other words, “my will are my actions, because my actions are my will”. He further describes Frankfurt’s view of the will as the “Hydraulic Conception” of desire, and criticizes it heavily:
…desires are conceptually and empirically distinct from our intentions in action, in the sense that one can want to do something without necessarily intending or choosing to do it. They are given to us, states we find ourselves in rather than themselves being primitive examples of agency [volition], things that we ourselves do or determine. The hydraulic conception maintains furthermore, that desires that are given in this way have a substantive explanatory role play in the etiology intentional action… This kind of psychological determinism is in my view the underlying philosophical commitment of the hydraulic model; but it is also its undoing. The problem, in broad terms, is that the model leaves no room for genuine deliberative agency. Action is traced back to the operation of forces within us, with respect to which we as agents are ultimately passive, and in a picture of this kind, real agency seems to drop out of view. Reasoned action requires the capacity to determine what one shall do in ways independent from the desires that one merely finds oneself with, and an explanatory framework that fails to leave room for this kind of self-determination cannot be adequate to the phenomenon it is meant to explain…
But for all his emphasis on explanation, Wallace himself goes on to argue for a conception of “self-control” as will that is fundamentally unfalsifiable:
…compelled agents retain a capacity to initiate a regime of self-control that cannot itself plausibly be reconstructed in terms of responses under various contrary-to-fact conditions. We think of such agents as possessing the power to struggle against their wayward impulses, not merely in counterfactual circumstances, in which the desires and beliefs to which they happen to be subject are different, but in the psychological circumstances in which they actually find themselves…
How is this belief to be shown as a matter of fact? How would one demonstrate that the will to “overcome” is a signal of freedom, or simply the product itself of deeper forces at work within the brain? How could we even tell the difference? In the end, Wallace argues for a volitional notion of the will that is vaguely similar to Kane’s classical depiction of the rational will of practical reason, in an attempt to escape the psychological determinism of what he called the “hydraulic” conception of the will:
We need, in my view… a third moment irreducible to either deliberative judgment or merely given desire. This is the moment I shall call ‘volition’. By ‘volition’ here, I mean a kind of motivating state that by contrast with the given desires that figure in the hydraulic conception, are directly under the control of the agent. Familiar examples of volitional states in this sense are intentions, choices, and decisions… Primitive examples of the phenomenon of agency itself…
Wallace gets significantly more specific a bit further down:
…[it is] the kind of agency distinctive of those creatures capable of practical reason. From the first-personal standpoint of practical deliberation take it that we are both subject to and capable of complying with rational requirements, and the volitionist approach enables us to make sense of this deliberative self-image…
He doesn’t actually explicitly mention why he uses the term “practical reason”, but I have to take this to mean what it meant traditionally (in Aristotle’s Ethics and Kant’s Groundwork): namely, the faculty for moral decision-making. So, Wallace is adding another layer to the cake of will: first, the physical; next, the psychological; and now, the moral. In short, “I can do as I will, and I can will as I reason from practical principles”. This may help Wallace escape the problem of psychological determinism, but it only pushes the metaphysical question (causal necessity) back by one degree. In other words, am I free to reason from practical principles? Schopenhauer thought not. The character of the will was baked-in from birth, according to him. So we can’t even desire what we desire. Kant, however, thought we could do this. That reasoning from practical principles was, indeed, a duty because we were rational beings, that the ultimate duty could be (indeed, must be) reasoned a priori, and that once we had done that, we were duty bound to act on it.
But all of this is starting to distract from the central question of this exploration. Namely, what in the world is the will? So far, the theories have been restricted to extensional descriptions of subjective experiences of judgment or choice, or working backward from physical phenomena like actions, but we don’t yet have a theory for the faculty itself. For that, I’m really going to have to return to Peter Tse, and Michael Gazzaniga.
- A. Schopenhauer, Prize Essay On The Freedom Of The Will, New York, Dover Publications, 2005 ↩
- P. E. Tse, The Neural Basis of Free Will, Cambridge Mass., MIT Press, 2013 ↩
- D. Dennett, Freedom Evolves, Londone, Penguine Books, 2003 ↩
- R. Kane, The Significance of Free Will, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998 ↩
- M. Balaguer, Free Will, Cambridge Mass., MIT Press, 2014 ↩
- G. Watson (ed), Free Will (Oxford Readings), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013 ↩
- Chisolm, R. M., ‘Human Freedom and the Self’, in G. Watson, (ed.), Free Will (Oxford Readings), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 26-36 ↩
- Frankfurt, H., ‘Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person’, in G. Watson, (ed.), Free Will (Oxford Readings), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 322-336 ↩
- Wallace, R. J., ‘Addiction as Defect of the Will: Some Philosophical Reflections, in G. Watson, (ed.), Free Will (Oxford Readings), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 424-452 ↩
It has been asked how, if at all, one might resolve the Sorites paradox. I am not convinced a solution is possible, and in this paper I will explain the responses I have become aware of, and why they fail. In the end, I will conclude that there is no solution to the paradox, but I will offer a few suggestions for a way forward.
The first response might simply be to reject the first premise of the argument. In other words, simply deny that a man with 10 hairs is in fact bald, or that 100 grains of sand is in fact a heap. In essence, this would render vague predicates useless at best, meaningless at worst, since no predicate that allows for a vague border case would be permitted to apply to anything. There is one way in which we might stretch this into plausibility, but I will address the other responses first, before returning to this in the conclusion.
The second response is to set some arbitrary boundary. This means selecting one one among the indefinite number of secondary premises beyond which all others will be false. For example, we might say that thirty-thousand and one grains of sand is the boundary below which we no longer regard a collection of grains to be a heap. At first glance, this approach might seem plausible. After all, we do this frequently in practice: setting the legal drinking age, or the number of credit-hours required to count as a ‘full-time’ student, for example. However, there are two core problems with this. First, from the context of the formal argument, there is no good reason to reject any of the subsequent conditional statements, and there appears to be no means by which we could discover a reason. The implicit modus ponens of the conditional compels us to accept them all. Second, as Wright (Vagueness, 1997) pointed out, vague predicates are inherently coarse by virtue of their intended use. So attempts to impose some sort of specificity would destroy their meaning.
The next approach would be to attempt to define a knowledge gap within some middle range of propositions between the edge false and edge true statements. On one interpretation of the idea, we could use a three-value logic, in evaluating the propositions. At some point, starting with grain one, the proposition ‘this is a heap’ would cease being false, and would instead be valued ‘unknown’ or ‘undefined’. Later, the unknown state would transition to true, once we’ve reached the next threshold. This would make it possible to judge the argument invalid, since any number of its premises were neither true nor false. However, this seems to be attempting to win on a technicality, and it suffers from the same problem as the arbitrary boundary solution, in that we have no real way of determining when the states should change.
The next response might be some form of Edgington’s “degrees” of truth (Vagueness, 1997). But this suffers from it’s own serious flaws. For example, consider the statement ‘it is raining’. That has a ‘degree’ of truth of .5. It’s negation, ‘it is not raining’ will have a degree of truth of .5. The consequence of this, is that the following propositions have exactly the same truth value: ’It is raining, and it is raining’, ’It is raining, and it is not raining’. The same problem exists with our heap of sand. So, again, we’re left with no clear way to determine the truth of the conditionals in the Sorites case.
In the end, there does not seem to be any clear resolution to this paradox. However, I would offer one suggestion. vague predicates, in addition to being inherently coarse, also seem to be describing inherently subjective experiences or judgements. While Sorites arguments seem to want to talk about objective properties of objects. Perhaps there is no solution to the paradox, precisely because “tall” or “heap” or “red” or “bald” is not in fact a property of the object being considered, but a property of the experience the subject has of that object. The paradox is perhaps trying to square subjective interpretation with objective matters of fact. And that’s why it cannot be resolved.
The following is my attempt to answer a question posed to me recently.
When I look at the question, it seems to focus on the individual. So, I think the easiest way to begin this, is to start with the self. Since I’m no Derek Parfit or Bernard Williams, and the question seems to be focusing on moral sentiment and moral choice, I’m going to reduce the ‘self’ to just that part we always end up talking about, when we talk about choice: The Will. Lacking a more sophisticated understanding of consciousness, I’m going to cobble together a rudimentary theory of the conscious self from Schopenhauer (Freedom of The Will), Dennett (Freedom Evolves, Consciousness Explained), and Peter Ulric Tse (The Neural Basis of Free Will).
Schopenhauer’s basic sketch of the conscious self, while not scientifically accurate anymore, is vague and general enough not to conflict with the a simple “modular” or “functional” understanding of the mind (one theory currently being batted around in science these days). So, I’m going to take his model as read, with some technical embellishments: The conscious, motivated, active self is (for our purposes), a neurochemical process of the brain that gives rise to a sensual consciousness (awareness of the outside world), a self-consciousness (awareness of our desires and intentions), and a ‘will’ embedded within that self-consciousness, from which all intentions to act originate, and upon which all chosen intentions are acted by that self.
Free will seems essential to this question. Schopenhauer, of course, argued against such a thing. But I don’t think his argument is conclusive. In short, if we’re looking backward in time, causal explanation chains are not necessarily evidence of causal necessity looking into the future (see Hume, on Induction). Further, it has been shown that sub-atomic indeterminacy can play a role in the way neurons function (see Tse, and Dennett). Thus, it seems there is room to suppose at a minimum, that absolute determinism is not a certainty (and, at best, that there is some sort of freedom of the underlying will that does not necessarily violate physical causation). Thus, I think we can tentatively accept the idea of an underlying will that is at least possibly free.
But even if all that is wrong, Schopenhauer still gives us a get-out-of-jail-free card, for the purposes of the class. He defines a conventional notion of freedom at the beginning of his essay that he calls “negative” freedom; meaning, in a phrase, “I am free to do as I will” (regardless of whether the will itself is free). In short, I am unimpeded or uninhibited in the choices available to me, in the basic physical sense. Since this conception of freedom is enough to get us to the point where we have to start making choices, and value judgments about our choices, I think this might be an acceptable “plan B” for answering this question.
So, we have a conscious self that is free to choose to act or not, on the intentions presented to it by it’s will. The next question would be (restating the original question a bit) is it possible for this self to act ‘selflessly’? Here, I think we have a straightforward answer, in both the metaphysical and logical sense:
- The will is contained within the consciousness that corresponds to it’s identified self.
- The will cannot present intentions to any other self, than the one to which it corresponds.
- The self cannot act upon intentions not presented to it by its own will (I will expound on this point, below).
- Therefore, it is not possible to act selflessly.
On premise three: Here, it might be tempting to ask, “but what about other people’s stated intentions? Can’t we act on those?”. To this, I would appeal to Schopenhauer’s conception of consciousness. If some friend is making an appeal to me (to act in some way), he would be presenting my sensual consciousness with a motive. The sensual consciousness would pass that motive to the self-consciousness, and the self-consciousness would report back the intentional desire to act from the will. At this point, I could choose to act on the impulse and respond positively, or I could deny the impulse and respond negatively to my friend. Even if I respond positively, I am still fundamentally acting from the self, because it is my will that gave rise to the impulse to act. This means (at least logically) that I could not possibly be acting selflessly. Therefore, all acts are selfish acts.
But this whole discourse from the raw metaphysical possibility seems a bit impoverished. Perhaps we mean to ask, “Is it possible to act purely from altruistic motives”? Or perhaps, “Is acting altruistically also acting selfishly”? These are much more difficult questions, I think. Mostly, because they’re intensely psychological. For the first question, I’d lean on my Schopenhauer again, and say yes it is possible to act from an ‘altruistic’ motive, because though we characterize the motive as “altruistic”, it is still fundamentally a motive experienced and intention exhibited by a self, thus it is necessarily (by definition?) acting ’selfishly’.
The second question is more interesting, and more perplexing. It’s essentially asking how motives interact in the mind. Perhaps even, what are the basic nature of these two motives (altruism and selfishness). If these two are not mutually exclusive, what happens when they “mix” in the mind? Is it an additive mixture, or a subtractive one? However, if they are exclusive, what calculus is taking place to privilege one over the other? What circumstances or other motives might have an effect on that calculation? Is the mixture or calculus something we can reduce to a principle? If so, would that function as a moral fundamental (even if not THE moral fundamental)?
Arguing from the psychological, I would speculate that a kernel of selfish motive lies at the core of all actions, even those dominated by selfless motives. Logically speaking, this would still be an affirmative answer to your question (Yes, it is possible to act selflessly). However, perplexingly, I could also say, ‘no it’s not possible, because that kernel of selfishness is present’ — and both answers would be true, because both motives are present in my mind at the same time. But perhaps my speculation is incorrect? Perhaps only one motive can be present at a time? Somehow, I doubt that…
That’s what’s interesting about the psychological question. It’s not quite a paradox, because it’s not actually a binary. It’s like drops of black paint in a bucket of white paint. If there is a kernel of selfishness at the core of all my selfless acts, does it “pollute” my altruism? Am I being dishonest somehow if I don’t acknowledge it? Does my worry about being dishonest betray some “turtles all the way down” higher authority that I want to appeal to? Or is this more like microprocessor voltages (below 5volts of selfishness = altruism; above 5volts of selfishness = selfishness)?
We might want to say this is where value judgments can help us out. Well, they may help us to clarify which of the two motives would dominate our intentions in some specific instance, but I’m not sure how that could get us to a universal principle (viz. Altruism Is Good, or Selfishness Is Good or Altruism is Bad or Selfishness is Bad).
The following is a dialogue between myself and Artur Schopenhauer, in which I basically try to interrogate the text as if I were talking directly to Schopenhauer, in an interview or discussion. All of Dr. Schopenhauer’s responses below come from the text of his essay, either as direct quotes or as slight rephrasing, in order to fit them into the flow of a conversation. It should be noted that I have not read World As Will And Representation (written before this essay), and that I have only a cursory knowledge of Schopenhauer’s biography. So, it is likely that additional context might have made this more insightful. In any case, this is meant only to offer an engaging way to consider the basic ideas contained within this essay, not as a serious critique of Schopenhauer, as such. I hope you enjoy it…
Me : Herr Doctor Schopenhauer, thank you for joining me, today.
Artur: You’re welcome. These days, I don’t have much else to do, and my hermitage in heaven is getting a bit stale. So, I need the outing.
Me: : As you know, we’re here to discuss your famous Prize Essay On The Freedom of the Will. To begin with, I want to take a page out of the philosopher’s playbook, and focus on your definitions. What do you think is meant by ‘freedom’?
Artur: When carefully examined, the concept of ‘freedom’ turns out to be negative… it signifies merely the absence of any hindrance or restraint… animals and men are called ‘free’ when their actions are not hindered by any physical or material obstacles — such as fetters, or prison, or paralysis. They proceed in accordance with their will… the concept in this meaning is not subject to doubt or controversy, and its reality can always be authenticated empirically.
Me : So, you take the common sense view of freedom to be the most compelling?
Artur: No, just the most obvious. In fact, it is perhaps the least interesting of the three different subspecies of freedom.
Me : Three ‘subspecies’? What do you mean?
Artur: Yes, as I was describing, freedom is a negative concept. The absence of restraint. But this means restraint is a positive concept, in the form of the power it manifests. The nature of this power can be seen in three different subspecies of freedom correspondent to it: physical, intellectual, and moral. I have only just begun to outline the physical subspecies.
Me : Are these three subspecies, in combination, what we mean when we use terms like “free will”?
Artur: Well, you’re jumping ahead a bit, but you are on the right track. With physical freedom, I do not take into account whatever may influence the will itself. For in it’s original, immediate, and therefore popular meaning, the concept of freedom refers only to the ability to act… However, as soon as we… consider the two remaining kinds, we are dealing with the philosophical sense of the concept, which leads to many difficulties.
Me : Let’s take the other two in order then, yes? What do you mean by ‘intellectual freedom’?
Artur: You are quite right to single out intellectual freedom first, because it is very closely related to physical freedom, but I cannot explain it properly unless we deal with moral freedom first.
Me : Well, in that case, what do you mean by moral freedom?
Artur: The key question here, is what is the true nature of the restraint to moral freedom. With physical freedom, I noted that material obstacles are the restraint upon physical freedom. It is present, when they are absent. In the case of moral freedom, however, it has been observed that a man, without being hindered by material obstacles, can be restrained by mere motives — such as threats, promises, dangers, and the like — from acting in a way in which, if these motives were absent, would have certainly expressed his will.
Me: Yes, I can think of several examples of this…
Artur: Of course, but the point is whether such a man is still free —
Me: I would say no, because the motive, provided it is sufficiently compelling, is more or less the same as a physical obstacle. To use one of the examples I thought of, I would certainly not act out my will, if I knew my will were to lead to direct harm to someone I loved.
Artur: You’re missing the point. If you refrain from acting, because you know it will harm a loved-one, you are acting in accordance with your will, not against it.
Me:: But isn’t that because my will has been restrained by the motive, in the same way that my physical action has been restrained by shackles?
Artur: A sound mind would say that a motive can never act in the same way as a physical obstacle! Undoubtedly, the physical restraint easily transcends human bodily powers unconditionally, but a motive can never be irresistible in itself, and has no absolute power. It can always be offset by a stronger counter-motive, provided that such a counter-motive is present and that you can be determined by it.
Me: That’s quite a lot to take in. I guess I don’t understand what you mean by a ‘motive’. And, what do you mean by ‘whether I can be determined by’ a motive?
Artur: I am not ready to explain this completely, just yet, but here is one example for you, to help you see what I mean: the motive to preserve one’s life. Does that make sense?
Me: So, a sort of fundamental desire or instinct?
Artur: Close, but not quite. But we’re getting side-tracked here. Can we simply accept this example for now?
Artur: Great. Now, the motive to preserve one’s own life is perhaps the strongest of all motives —
Me: — But how did we determine that?
Artur: Grrr… Ok, can you think of a motive stronger than the self-preservation motive? The will to live?
Me: Hrm. No, not at the moment.
Artur: Right. So, it is the strongest of all motives, and yet it can be outweighed by other motives, for example, in suicide or in sacrificing one’s life for others —
Me: But wait! Doesn’t that make those motives the strongest motives, in the moment they are expressed? The strongest motive, by definition, is the motive that results in it’s own expression, yes?
Artur: My boy, you’re making my point for me. Though motives bring with them no purely objective and absolute compulsion, still one could ascribe to them a subjective and relative compulsion namely, to the person involved. And, now I can finally begin to answer your original question…
Me: Ok, I’m confused, what do you mean?
Artur: You’ll notice that all this talk of motives and restraints, which as been imposed upon one’s ability, relates to willing. So, the question remains: is the will itself free? So far, we have defined freedom according to the popular conception as acting “in accordance with one’s own will.” So, to ask whether the will itself is free, is to ask whether the will is in accordance with itself. This, of course, is self-evident, but also says nothing at all.
Me: Wait. So, you mean to ask not “am I free”, but “is my will free”? In other words, you think there is a difference between “me”, and my will?
Artur: Let me see if I can make it clearer for you. The empirical concept of freedom signifies: “I am free when I can do what I will.” Here in the phrase “what I will” the freedom is already affirmed. But when we now inquire about the freedom of willing itself, the question would then take this form: “can you also will your volitions?”, as if a volition depended on another volition which lay behind it. Suppose that this question is answered in the affirmative. What then? Another question would arise: “can you also will that which you will to will?” Thus we would be pushed back indefinitely…
Me: It’s an infinite regress!
Artur: Yes, that’s quite right. You can see then that it is impossible to establish a direct connection between the concept of freedom — in its original, empirical meaning derived from action — and the concept of willing.
Me: But I thought we already covered this. You said before that the physical understanding wasn’t enough, and that I needed to understand moral freedom as well. What am I missing?
Artur: What you’re missing is the point. You want to understand what freedom is, yes?
Me: Yes, that’s what I was hoping you could tell me.
Artur: Please, do try to follow me, then. In order to be in a position to apply the concept of freedom to the will, one must modify it by making the concept of freedom signify in general only the absence of any necessity. Thus interpreted, the concept retains its negative character, which I attributed to it from the very beginning. Accordingly, one must first investigate the concept of necessity. For this is the positive concept which gives meaning to the negative one — and which gives form to the power I described at first.
Me : Ok, so then is ‘necessity’ the same as the restraint you were talking about, at first?
Artur: Yes, but this needs to be explained better. Something is necessary which follows from a given sufficient ground… Only insofar as we comprehend something as the consequent of a given ground do we recognize it to be necessary. Conversely, as soon as we recognize something to be a consequent of a sufficient ground, we see that it is necessary. This is because all grounds are compelling.
Me : I don’t quite understand what you mean by ‘ground’ or ‘compelling’.
Artur: The necessity of a logical cause will be the conclusion from valid premises. The necessity of a mathematical cause will be the equality of the terms on either side of the operator, and the necessity of physical cause will be its immediate effect. In all these cases, with equal strictness, the necessity is attached to the consequent when the ground is given. The ground is my conception of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, something I don’t have time to explain here, but you can read my doctoral thesis for a full treatment. Suffice to say, everything that is grounded has a proper cause.
Me : Ah, ok. Well, then you must be saying that all causes necessitate their effects, is that right?
Artur: In a word, yes. The absence of necessity would be identical with the absence of a determining sufficient cause. Still, we think of the accidental as the opposite of necessary.
Me : Wait, what? Why? Isn’t an accidental cause still a cause? If so, how could it not be sufficient?
Artur: There is no conflict between these views, each accidental occurrence is only relatively so. For in a world where only accidents can be encountered, every event is necessary in relation to its cause, while in relation to all other events which are contemporaneously and spatially contiguous with it, the event is accidental.
Me : Ok, this is confusing. You seem to be agreeing with me. But what does all this have to do with freedom?
Artur: I must concede, this is the most problematic notion of my idea of freedom. Since the mark of freedom is absence of necessity, that which is free would have to be absolutely independent of any cause and would therefore have to be defined as absolutely accidental.
Me : Absolutely accidental? This is getting even more confusing. Are you saying that freedom, to be ‘real’, would have to be somehow disconnected, or even violate, causal necessity?
Artur: That is precisely what I am saying. It coincides in a singular fashion with the concept of freedom, but I don’t guarantee that it is conceivable. At any rate, that which is free remains that which is in no respect necessary, that is, not dependent on any ground. If we apply this concept to the will of man, it would mean that an individual will in its manifestations (volitions) would not be determined by causes or by sufficient grounds at all.
Me : This is astounding. Are you actually saying that there is no freedom?
Artur: Well, yes, I suppose so. But more must be done to prove it, before we can be certain. At the moment, I am simply setting the criteria by which we might identify a will that is free. A free will then, would be the will which is not determined by grounds — and since everything that determines another must be a ground, in real things a real ground, that is, a cause — a few will would not be determined by anything at all. The particular manifestations of this will (volitions) would then proceed absolutely and quite originally from the will itself, without being brought about necessarily by antecedent conditions, and hence also with being determined by anything according to a rule.
Me : But why should identifiable antecedent causes necessitate a lack of freedom? Just because I can look into my past and point to a chain of causal events — even necessary ones — that led me to the present interview, surely that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a choice, nor that I did not have the power to act on that choice, does it? To suggest that a causal explanation is evidence of some sort of necessity, one must be able to demonstrate that these causes stripped me of my capacity to choose.
Artur: When we try to deal with this concept, clear thinking abandons us because, while the positing of a ground, in all of its meanings, is the essential form of our entire cognitive faculty, we are here asked to refrain from positing a ground. But every consequent of a ground is necessary, and every necessity is the consequent of a ground. Still, there is no lack of a technical term for this concept: liberum arbitrium indifferentiae… such a free will of indifference includes the peculiar feature that for a human individual equipped with such a feature, under given external conditions which are thoroughly determined in every particular, two diametrically opposed actions are equally possible.
Me : But there must be some way out of this paradox! Clearly, I feel like I am willing my choices freely. How can I feel free, and yet be completely compelled by causal necessity?
Artur: One cannot get away from the negative conception of freedom, without involving oneself in vacillating, hazy explanations, behind which hides hesitant indecision, as when one talks about grounds which do not necessarily bring about their consequents.
Me : Well, I may not be able to get away from it, but I don’t have to like it! In any case, we’ve run out of time for this episode, I’m afraid. Next time, we’ll be moving on to your conception of consciousness, if you’re available.
Artur: Yes, I think I still might be able to talk some sense into you. An explication of my view of consciousness that may help to clear a few things up for you.
Me : Well, thank you for your time Doctor Schopenhauer, and until next time listeners, keep thinking!
Truth is discoverable. I'm certain of it. It's not popular to say. It's not popular to think. But I know it's true. Anybody can discover truth if they know where to look. It only requires skepticism and an open mind. Don't take my word for it. Scrutinize every claim in this book, and if you discover no truth, then you may confidently discard it in the trash.
Patterson, Steve (2016-11-28). Square One: The Foundations of Knowledge (Kindle Locations 77-80). UNKNOWN. Kindle Edition.
Expound and assess Schopenhauer’s argument that free will is an illusion. Does he succeed in showing what he calls “relative” freedom is not really enough to constitute free will?
Schopenhauer does succeed in logically arguing that what he calls “will” is not “free”, as he conceives the terms “will” and “free”. However, he does not succeed in showing that what we commonly understand to be freedom, is in any way undermined by his conception of the will. At best, he shows is that our common conception is incomplete. I will show that Schopenhauer sets up a false dichotomy between causality and the will via a misapplication of the notion of “negative” freedom, and that he asserts a scientifically inaccurate view of human consciousness that conflates causality with fatalism through his use of the concept of the “character” of the will. Finally, I will forgive Schopenhauer his mistakes, and show how his conception of the will, as crude as it was, pointed (perhaps inadvertently) to a more sophisticated approach to understanding human freedom.
Schopenhauer distinguishes man from animal in his essay by describing our capacity for rational deliberation and showing how this capacity provides us with a means to project decisions far into the future, thus freeing us from the constraints of instinctive behavior determined by immediate environmental concerns. Schopenhauer believes this sense of control over our own actions is what gives us the feeling that “I can do as I will”. This, he says, is the “negative” conception of freedom, meaning that my actions are not necessitated by external obstacles or coercions. But, he argues, being “free to do as I will” is in some sense still constrained, because acts originate from the will, and the will itself is constrained by causality. So, for Schopenhauer, a “free” will would be one that could function independently — i.e., in violation of — the laws of physical causality; and, since no one can show this to be the case except by special pleading, the will must be causally determined, and as such, not “free”.
While the notion of being “free from obstacles” is a good starting point in searching for a definition of freedom, it is a mistake to equate the laws of physical causality with a metaphysical “obstacle”. It suggests that existence is some sort of hurdle that needs to be overcome. This is akin to Descartes’ demand for absolute certainty as a standard of “knowledge”. Both yearn for an ideal realm of absolutes in which the mind is effectively godlike, possessing a sort of unmediated awareness of everything, and capable of a spontaneity akin to Douglas Adams’ Infinite Improbability Engine, producing “decisions” in isolation (or even opposition) to the universe around it. In other words, like Descartes’ conception of knowledge, Schopenhauer’s conception of freedom is designed to render it impossible, leaving us no choice but to accept the negative conclusion that there is no such thing. But is there really no other way to look at this problem, than as an impossible metaphysical trolly dilemma between an utter enslavement to fate, or a miraculous denial of physical causality? For Schopenhauer, the answer is no, and this comes down to his view of the will.
Schopenhauer’s conception of the will is one shrouded in mystery. He describes it only in silhouette, as a feature of what he calls the “self-consciousness”: that part of the mind that is “turned inward” exclusively, and that makes us aware of our inner emotional states. He claims that the will cannot be known “in itself”, but only through the observation of our emotional states and our actions. He describes a decision, or choice, as an event in which an external “motive” is presented to the “outward-looking” consciousness, which then passes that awareness to the will. The combination of motive and the “character” of the will then produces an impulse to act in a certain way, which we can observe via the self-consciousness. He goes on to assert that the “character” of the will is something we are born with, and that remains fixed and immutable throughout our lives. So, for Schopenhauer, the “will” is a sort of Chinese Room, into which motives are inserted, and decisions are ejected, and if we had enough accumulated knowledge of every man’s decisions, we could conceivably define their character precisely, and predict all of their actions into the future, given a complete set of input “motives”.
This is a highly mechanistic view of human psychology of which even B. F. Skinner might have been skeptical. Modern neuroscience and psychology tell us that the brain is a highly “plastic” well into adulthood, that there does not seem to be any “center” of conscious control (aka “will”), and that there are many clinical therapy methods that have been very successful at altering not only behavior, but desires, impulses to action, and emotional responses to external stimuli. If we were to maintain even a metaphorical conception of the “character of the will”, modern science would compel us to a view of it that is anything but immutable. What’s more, it doesn’t make sense why an immutable will is required for Schopenhauer’s conception of the will as “causally determined”. Why is it not possible for external motives to have lasting causal effects on the “character” of the will, such that it’s later outputs did not match early results? Schopenhauer seems, implicitly, to think that this immutability is required in order to maintain his positive claim of causal determinism, but he does not explain why. Perhaps this was his attempt to avoid the “could have done otherwise” question?
For all of the vague and inexplicable features of his theory of will, Schopenhauer did manage to do us a favor. By formulating an idea that was fundamentally empirical, he offered us an opportunity for new knowledge through scientific testing of his theory. By making the distinction between matter-of-fact “negative” freedom, and the more fundamental metaphysical freedom, Schopenhauer helped to clarify the proper boundaries of our concept of freedom. By attempting to delineate the features of the conscious mind in order to isolate the will, he actually helped to begin the process of freeing us from the muddle of Cartesian dogmatisms, even while relying on them in some sense. Seen through the hind-sight lens of modern science, Schopenhauer was quite right to suspect an unexplored universe of activity in the mind occurring below the level of consciousness. The mistake he made, and that we continue to make today, is in assuming that this activity renders us incapable of acting “freely”. Schopenhauer does this because he conflates freedom with a miraculous power to untether oneself from the laws of physics. But it seems perfectly feasible that a complex process of activity – entirely governed by the laws of physics – could be going on at the neuronal level, that produced a behavioral phenomenon in living organisms that could be described as acting “freely”. The problem is, how would we know this? How could we correctly judge which of an organism’s behaviors was “free” and which was not? If I ran a rat through a maze 1,000 times, and it took the same path every time, could I say that the rat’s behavior was “determined”? Whether or not it was actually making “a free choice” is effectively an unfalsifiable hypothesis. If I drive the same route to work every day for a year, and then suddenly decide to change my route because I’m bored, is that evidence of “freedom”, or evidence of some causal factor that if I’d been aware of it a year earlier, could predict accurately, my change in habit? And even if I could predict this accurately, could it really be said that I did not have a “free choice” to take a different route when the year came due? It’s really not clear either way. This suggests that the whole question might be a red herring.
Schopenhauer wisely recognized that our concept of free will was superficial, and somewhat tenuous. Although his effort to achieve clarity overreached was could reasonably asserted in his day, he offered a dim light on the path to understanding the role of the subconscious in our decision-making processes. As such, he helped to make it possible for us to satisfy ourselves with “relative” freedom, even if he was correct that such a thing is an “illusion”. Though, as I have explained already, he hasn’t quite demonstrated that either.
The IEP defines Qualia as:
“…the subjective or qualitative properties of experiences. What it feels like, experientially, to see a red rose is different from what it feels like to see a yellow rose. Likewise for hearing a musical note played by a piano and hearing the same musical note played by a tuba… As [C. I.] Lewis [the originator of the term] used the term, qualia were properties of sense-data themselves. In contemporary usage, the term has been broadened to refer more generally to properties of experience… Qualia are often referred to as the phenomenal properties of experience…”
As I understand this, qualia is what the brain makes, out of the raw data coming across the wires connecting our eyes, ears, nose, tongue and fingers, to the brain. In other words, the meaningful content constructed out of that data. The article also goes on to include emotional responses among the “phenomena of experience”.
If this definition is correct, then what would we call the meaningful content constructed during dreaming? I often dream of driving off the edge of a cliff or a high bridge that’s unfinished. I can feel the free-fall as the car leaves the pavement. I can feel the inertia as I plummet (usually toward a body of water), and I can hear the wind in my ears. I can see the green-gray water of the lake below me. I can feel the water envelop me, as I strike its surface, and I can feel the pressure against my chest. I can taste the water, in my mouth, as I gasp for air after surfacing. And yet, I’m actually lying in bed, sound asleep.
This, of course, is a classic Cartesian complaint about “knowing”. But my main question, is how these feelings are occurring at all, if they are a product of sense data?
The same is true for memories. When I recall a choir concert I’ve been too, I can hear the music in my head (though, this is a bit more obviously distinct from actually hearing). When I recall the time I spent in Vermont, I can smell the mower clippings in our neighbor’s hay field. When I close my eyes, I can see the Alpacas he kept, nosing up to the fence in anticipation of some corn or sugar cubes.
The brain must be storing the original data somewhere up there, and re-purposing it, for memories and dreams. But how?
I think Descartes argument in the Meditations would have been much stronger, if he’d stuck with the dream comparison. Launching off into the demon analogy lost me.
When I was a teen, it was not difficult for me to realize I was in a dream, or to impose conscious intent into my dream landscapes. Realizing my state, it was thrilling to be able to give myself powers of flight or lazer eyes, or extra limbs. But sometimes, I would get stuck in a sort of “third person” mode, as well (Cartesian theater?), where I could watch myself from an oblique overhead perspective. Those dreams were a great deal more frightening (due to the lack of control). However, as I’ve gotten older, it’s become more and more difficult to differentiate between the conscious ego and the dream actor — and much more difficult to realize I am in a dream (when I’m dreaming, of course).
This suggests to me, that dreams either function as, or are a byproduct of, some sort of process of “integration” taking place in the brain. In other words, that our sensual experience, our emotional responses to those experiences, and our rational interpretations of the two, somehow need to be distilled into one thing, before they can “settle” into the personality. What that might look like at the neurological level — if my idea is even coherent — is beyond me.
The proposition ‘I am, I exist’ (ego sum, ego existo – hereafter, referred to as the ’ego’), is of special importance in the argument of Descartes’ Second Meditation for many reasons. More generally, it is important because of the implications it has for Descartes’ overall philosophical project. For example, it implicitly rejects religious authority in favor of a personal standard of knowledge in an era in which Galileo faced aggressive persecution; it also forms the nascent beginning of the still ongoing nature-nurture debate, and it ultimately makes Descartes something of an Augustinian. But these topics are far too broad to cover adequately in a brief essay. Since the language of the question at hand focuses exclusively on the the Second Meditation and specifically the argument within it, a much narrower interpretation seems more appropriate. Namely, why is the ‘ego’ necessary for Descartes to achieve his goal in the Second Meditation, and how does it facilitate that goal? On this point, I will argue that there is one fundamental reason. Namely, without the ego, Descartes has no means by which to recover from the corrosive power of his own method of doubt. I will outline and analyze this reason, focusing on whether the ‘ego’ satisfies the logical and epistemic demands put upon it by the method. Finally, I will argue that because Descartes is unclear in his justification for the ego, it remains unconvincing as a basis for epistemic certainty.
Doubt, Absolute Certainty, And The Whirlpool
A central feature of Descartes’ Method of Doubt is an absolute standard for what he will allow himself to identify as knowledge. He states in Meditation One: “…we should withhold assent just as carefully from whatever is not completely certain and indubitable as from what is clearly false…”. In other words, for the purposes of his method, he makes no distinction, nor accommodates any gradation, between the weakest of doubts and the worst of errors. All of these shades of gray are to be judged identically false. As a consequence, he admits he is, “…forced to concede eventually that there is nothing… that cannot be doubted…”, and by the beginning of Second Meditation, he recognizes the extreme position this puts him in, vowing to find a way to extricate himself:
“…I am so tossed about, as if I had fallen suddenly into a deep whirlpool, that I can neither put my foot on the bottom nor swim to the surface. However… I will follow [the method of doubt] until I discover something that is certain or, at least, until I discover that it is certain only that nothing is certain. Archimedes looked for only one firm and immovable point in order to move the whole earth; likewise, I could hope for great things if I found even the smallest thing that is certain and unmoved…”
Finding this Archimedean point, then, is the challenge he faces in the Second Meditation. But what does this entail, exactly? To begin, we need to understand the standard of knowledge that has driven him to this point. In other words, what does Descartes mean by certainty? He defines it in The Meditations thus far only in silhouette, as a belief held “without doubt”. But to clearly understand his predicament it would help to understand what, for Descartes, constituted epistemic certainty. On this question, Descartes offers very little in the Meditations in the way of a complete explanation. However, he does provide some helpful details in an earlier work entitled, “Rules For the Direction of The Mind”. Rule three provides a direct and concise answer, in fact:
“…let us here enumerate all the acts of our intellect through which we can arrive at knowledge of things without any fear of error. We admit only two: namely, intuition and deduction.”
The Acts Of The Intellect
Unfortunately, Descartes does not explain why these two particular acts of the intellect are the only two options. However, he does a fair amount of work to describe how they function separately as paths to knowledge. First, on intuition, he explains that it something quite different from the common-sense conception:
“…By intuition I understand neither the fleeting testimony of the senses nor the deceptive judgment of the imagination with its false constructions, but a conception of a pure and attentive mind, so easy and so distinct, that no doubt at all remains about what we understand. Or, what comes to the same thing, intuition is the indubitable conception of a pure and attentive mind arising from the light of reason alone; it is more certain even than deduction, because it is simpler, even though, as we noted above, people cannot err in deduction either. Thus everyone can intuit with his mind that he exists, that he is thinking, that a triangle is bounded by only three lines, a sphere by a single surface, and the like…”
Descartes actually restates the “light of reason” notion in Meditation Three. So, we can be reasonably sure that the concept remained roughly the same for him in the gap between the writing of Rules and Meditations. He does not explain in the Rules how that “indubitable conception” is arrived at, except to assert that it arises from that “light of reason”. In The Meditations, he also adds that intuition is necessarily trustworthy, because none of the other “faculties” share the indubitable character of the faculty from which this notion arises.
“…whatever is shown to me by the natural light of reason – for example, that from the fact that I doubt it follows that I exist, and similar things – cannot in any way be doubtful, because there cannot be another faculty which I trust as much as that light and which could teach me that the conclusion is not true…”
He gives us an argument in the third Meditation for how intuition achieves this absolute undoubtable character, by way of a fairly lengthy chain of reasoning meant also to provide his first proof of the existence of God. An analysis of that argument (and the so-called ‘Cartesian Circle’ created by it) is beyond the scope of this essay. So, I will only roughly summarize Descartes’ justification, here: The ideas in my mind are something that require a cause which, at least in some cases, cannot be myself. That cause is necessarily God, because the regress must end somewhere, and that end must be the necessary source, and the most perfect of ideas. Namely, God.
Moving on to the intellectual act of deduction, he argues first in rule two of Rules, that deduction is like mathematics and geometry because it’s objects are “pure and simple”, and this makes intelligible knowledge superior to sensible knowledge:
“…we must observe that we can arrive at knowledge of things by two paths, namely by experience or by deduction. We must observe, further, that while experiences of things are often deceptive, deduction or a pure inference of one thing from another, though it may be passed over if it is not noticed, can never be erroneously executed by an intellect even minimally rational…”
And further, he assigns the same certainty to this sort of reasoning, as he does to his intuition, precisely because of it’s independence from the senses:
“…mathematics and geometry… alone are concerned with an object so pure and simple that they suppose absolutely nothing which experience has rendered uncertain, but they consist entirely in consequences rationally deduced… [Thus], one must conclude… that those who seek the right road of truth should not occupy themselves with any object concerning which they cannot possess a certainty equal to that of the demonstrations of arithmetic and geometry…”
In the Meditations, again, he repeats this conception of (and commitment to) mathematical thought as a form of certainty, both in his opening letter to the Sorbonne, and in the First Meditation. The end result is that, for Descartes, nothing is worthy of the label “knowledge” or “certainty”, unless he can intuit it from the “light of pure reason” in a single spontaneous instant, or infer it directly in a single step from such an intuition. As he puts it in The Rules:
“…From all this we may conclude that those propositions which follow immediately from first principles are known according to the way we look at it, now by intuition, now by deduction, but that the first principles themselves are known only by intuition, and the remote conclusions, in contrast, only by deduction…”
From the outset of his project, then, we can see that Descartes is anxious to find some kind of unassailable object of the mind that is beyond the reach of empirical rejection or denial by reasoned argument, upon which he can construct an epistemological edifice that will function as the basis for his science. But from what “first principle” can he begin this chain of very small, singular, and “certain” logical inferences? Well, to reiterate what he says in the Rules, “everyone can intuit with his mind that he exists, that he is thinking” In other words, Cogito, Ergo Sum. Or, even more simply as the necessary conclusion stated in Meditation Two.
Argument or Intuition?
Does the ‘ego’ succeed as this singular, certain, self-evident intuition? To begin with, it isn’t clear in the Second Meditation that Descartes has in fact established the proposition as an intuition by his own standard. For example, there are three obvious arguments presented near the start of the essay:
- If I am having thoughts, then I am something.
- I am having thoughts
- C1: I am something
- If I convinced myself of something, then I exist
- I convinced myself that there is no material world (From Meditation 1)
- C2: I exist
- If it is possible that a powerful demon is deceiving me, then I exist
- It is possible that a powerful demon is deceiving me (from Meditation 1)
- C3: I exist
All of these are stated in quick succession immediately prior the conclusion, “…this proposition ‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true whenever it is stated by me or conceived in my mind…” If Descartes had not intended to express his existence as a conclusion following necessarily from premises (i.e., as an argument), or as a result of a series of arguments, then why even include these? If the intent was to demonstrate the “clear and distinct” idea of his own existence, wouldn’t it have been wiser to point out the absurdity in the inverse assertion (“I am not, I do not exist”)? Descartes actually hints at this in his explication of intuition in the Rules, even going so far as to assert the intuitive obviousness of our own self-existence. And, in response to Mersenne and Gassendi, in the Objections And Replies, Descartes explicitly denies that he is making an argument. He rejects their particular attempt to state the cogito in the traditional formulation of a strict syllogism, which contains a major general premise (in this case suppressed) and a minor particular premise:
- SP: Whatever is thinking must exist
- I am a thinking
- C1: I exist
By my reading, this is close, but not quite what Descartes is doing in the Second Meditation. Yet also by my reading, it still seems clear that he is indeed making an argument (three of them, in fact, as I have demonstrated above). But so what? Let’s grant momentarily that this criticism is sufficient to render both the ego and the cogito either as arguments, or the conclusions to arguments. Still, Descartes’ own standard of knowledge included both intuition, and deduction. Do the Modus Ponens interpretations above conform to Descartes’ understanding of the kind of deduction that constituted epistemic certainty? And, if they don’t, where does this leave the ego?
Judging by his statements about deduction in the Rules, it’s not so clear. On the one hand, he suggests a sort of apparent obviousness that requires no formal reasoning at all, such as the contemplation of geometric shapes. On the other, he describes a process by which we are moving from an axiom to an inference based on the axiom. There doesn’t seem to be any clear guidance on which of the two conceptions is preferable. In fact, Descartes himself seemed to recognize this muddled distinction, and tried to clarify it in the Rules:
“there may now be some doubt as to why we should have added here another mode of knowledge besides intuition, that is, one proceeding by deduction, by which we understand all that is necessarily inferred from other things that are certainly known. But this procedure was necessary, since many things are known with certainty which nevertheless are not themselves evident, simply because they are deduced from true and known principles by the continuous and uninterrupted movement of a mind which clearly intuits each step… Therefore we distinguish here intuition from certain deduction by the fact that some movement or succession is conceived in the latter but not in the former…”
In this context, it seems to me the Modus Ponens interpretations may be a more charitable understanding of Descartes than the form prescribed by Mersenne or Gassendi, since you could read the first two premises as a sort of simultaneous set of propositions, phrased for example, like: “the ‘I’ exists, and is convinced”. Yet, it seems to me that all that this really amounts to, is an attempt to make the argument look like an intuition — the only thing, really, that Descartes is willing to countenance as a “first principle” in his epistemology. Which puts us right back where we started: at a loss to discover “one firm and immovable point”, from which to lever the rest of our thinking.
The standard of knowledge that Descartes defines for himself in the beginning of Meditations is absolute certainty. He insists that only those things that we can assert with unflinching conviction should be granted the status of truth or knowledge. He tells us that this sort of “clear and distinct” certainty is only possible in the “light of reason”. While Descartes may assert, “…as a general rule… everything that I perceive very clearly and distinctly is true.”, I find I have to agree with another author, that “The notion of a clear and distinct idea is, unfortunately, one of Descartes’ least clear and distinct notions.” And, as I have shown, there is even less ground for confidence in his idea as a deduction, since even Descartes himself insists that it is not, and the more charitable forms are simply begging the intuition. Applying Descartes’ own standard, then, there is no good reason to believe he exists, and I think Descartes would agree:
“…we should be warned never at any time to admit any conjectures what- soever as an admixture to our judgments on the truth of things. This counsel is of no small importance. For the chief reason why nothing is found in the vulgar philosophy so evident and certain as to be incapable of controversial treatment is this: scholars, not content with knowing what is clear and certain, first hazarded further affirmations about obscure and unknown matters which they arrived at only by probable conjectures;…”
While it’s true that Descartes’ method of doubt is useful occasionally, as a tool for highlighting hidden assumptions and implicit errors in thinking, Descartes’ use of it in the Meditations has a very different purpose. He says in passing, in the First Meditation, that he wants to make an advancement to “the sciences”. But that term had a very different meaning for him, than it does for us some 400 years later. Many writers and commentators excuse Descartes’ religiosity in his writings as a necessary self-defense in an era in which Galileo faced extreme danger for his confrontations with the church. But this does not correspond with the biography of Descartes the man, as I understand him. For all his skepticism, Descartes was fundamentally committed to his belief in God. And this was an explicit goal of the Meditations: “God’s existence and the distinction between the human soul and the body are demonstrated”. Nothing I’ve read so far, gives me any cause to believe this goal was disingenuously bolted on to the work, to appease ecclesiastical tyrants.
The Meditations is replete with black-and-white dichotomies, and impossible situations. The insistence on absolute certainty itself is a perfect example of that. This sort of thinking raises my own skeptical alarm bells. It typically arises out of two situations: (1) there is a problem with the language used in the argument, or some terms are not well understood, or (2) the author is determined to arrive at a preconceived conclusion, at all costs. As I have shown, Descartes clearly suffers from both Maladies. He needs knowledge to begin with something fundamentally separate from common experience, and yet fundamentally personal, in order to get to his God. To do this, he needs a standard of knowledge that divorces him from reality, and from authority. This is what motivated Descartes to put the ego (and the cogito) at center stage. Because without it, his argument is empty, and — at least for him — there is no reality.