Tag: mind

On Schopenhauer’s Essay On The Freedom Of The Will

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 Qualia Of Dreams

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 Importance Of Descartes’ Existence

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:

Argument 1:

  1. If I am having thoughts, then I am something.
  2. I am having thoughts
  3. C1: I am something

Argument 2:

  1. If I convinced myself of something, then I exist
  2. I convinced myself that there is no material world (From Meditation 1)
  3. C2: I exist

Argument 3:

  1. If it is possible that a powerful demon is deceiving me, then I exist
  2. It is possible that a powerful demon is deceiving me (from Meditation 1)
  3. 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:

  1. SP: Whatever is thinking must exist
  2. I am a thinking
  3. 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.

Conclusion

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.