Examining Free-Will Through Spinoza and Descartes

By Rocco A. Astore
2016, Vol. 8 No. 02 | pg. 2/2 |

Spinoza’s way of understanding the mind, freedom in relation to God, and freedom in relation to people, is not only different than Descartes, it is also more logical, as well as successful at deflecting problems which arose from Descartes’s beliefs concerning this issue. This is because, to Spinoza, the immaterial mind is nothing more than a mode of God’s attribute of thought, and just as the body follows a set pattern of motions, which ultimately derive from God’s essence expressed under the attribute of extension, ideas also follow an order, which by necessity parallel the order of things.71 This is because the mind’s idea of the body is adequate insofar as one needs to be self-aware of their body, in order to persevere in who they are by nature at any given time.72 Hence, the immaterial mind is not free, rather it is compelled because it needs the body in order to be aware of how outside affects, affect it.73 Furthermore, to Spinoza God is Nature, and since God does not exists outside of the natural order, Spinoza, I believe, rightfully does away with the distinction Descartes makes between it and the universe.74

Thus, the laws of nature can be understood as being of God’s essence, and if God were to intervene in that order, God would be defying its own nature, which both philosophers agree is illogical, and something such as miracles, or exceptions to nature’s rules, as Descartes understood them, are to Spinoza, an impossibility.75 Also, by doing away with this distinction, between God, and nature, Spinoza’s idea of God, can be understood as the only substance that is uncompelled and whose essence includes being the laws of the universe, which, in turn, bypasses Descartes’s problem of how God, and nature, could interact if they are distinct. Therefore, one can infer that to Spinoza, nothing other than God, or Nature, is undetermined, since all things derive from its order, and thus, God’s nature is not that of a free creator, rather it is that of a free cause which all beings are dependent on in all ways.76

Next, I agree with Spinoza’s view concerning the extent of people’s free-will, rather than Descartes’s, because like him I believe it is more justifiable that one must develop their ability to channel God’s freedom, as opposed to free-will being fully actualized from the beginning of a person’s existence, because they are products of God.77 I make this claim because, if for example one were to analyze their ability to run, they must first conclude that they had to have walked before that, and hence, could not truly assert that they were born with that ability in its fully actualized form. I make this analogy because it seems as if Descartes, by stating that people are fully free from birth, could be understood as trying to defend a logical position, which would be as if one were trying to defend their supposed fully actualized ability to run since infancy.78

Unlike Descartes, Spinoza, by claiming that one must cultivate their mind, in order to realize what free-will truly is, as well as to know, and develop their capacity for it, is akin to saying one must learn how to walk before they could run, which I believe is not only much more justifiable than Descartes’s claims, but also does away with having to defend a counter-intuitive position, such as the one held by Descartes.79

With this essay, I have hoped to convey the philosophical notions of Spinoza, and Descartes concerning free-will. By stating their differences, I have also hoped to show that though similar in certain respects, there are still striking dissimilarities between these two philosophers’ claims regarding the concept of freedom. Finally, by arguing for Spinoza’s position, I intended to convey the idea that by embracing a more deterministic account of freedom, Spinoza successfully avoids issues which arose from Descartes’s compatibilist ideas of free-will.


References

Descartes, Rene. Roger Ariew trans., Discourse on Method as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 46-83.

----------------------. Roger Ariew trans., “[To Silhon] The Existence of God and of the Soul (March 1637)” as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 83.

----------------------. Roger Ariew trans., Meditations on First Philosophy as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 97-142.

----------------------. Roger Ariew trans., Principles of as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 222-273.

----------------------. Roger Ariew trans., “[To Mesland] On Freedom (May 2nd, 1644)” as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 216-222.

----------------------. Roger Ariew trans., “[To Mesland] On Freedom (February 9th, 1645)” as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 273-274.

----------------------. Roger Ariew trans., “[To Mersenne] About Galileo’s Condemnation” as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 43-46.

----------------------. Roger Ariew trans., The World as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 30-43.

----------------------. Roger Ariew trans., Rules for the Direction of the Mind as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 2-28.

Spinoza, Benedict De. Edwin Curley, ed., Ethics (Princeton: Penguin Books, 1996). 1-186.

Spinoza, Benedict De. Jonathan , ed., Theological-Political Treatise (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). 5-280


Endnotes

1.) B.D. Spinoza. E. Curley, ed., Ethics (Princeton: Penguin Books, 1996). 1

2.) Ibid. 1, 13, & 16

3.) Ibid. 18-20

4.) Ibid.

5.) Ibid. 25

6.) Ibid. 6 & 8

7.) Ibid. 2 & 10-13

8.) Ibid. 6 & 8

9.) Ibid. 75

10.) Ibid. 55-57

11.) Ibid.

12.) Ibid.

13.) Ibid.

14.) Ibid. 76-77

15.) Ibid.

16.) Ibid.

17.) Ibid. 76

18.) Ibid.

19.) Ibid. 160-162, & 176-177

20.) Ibid.

21.) Ibid.

22.) Ibid. 176-177

23.) Ibid. 120, & 166-167

24.) Ibid. 166 & 169

25.) Ibid. 165

26.) Ibid.

27.) Ibid. 85

28.) Ibid. 169

29.) Ibid. 170

30.) Ibid. 169

31.) Ibid. 166

32.) R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., Discourse on Method as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 63

33.) R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., “[To Silhon] The Existence of God and of the Soul (March 1637)” as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 83

34.) Ibid.

35.) Ibid.

36.) Ibid.

37.) R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., Meditations on First Philosophy as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 130

38.) R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., Principles of Philosophy as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 249

39.) R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., “[To Mesland] On Freedom (May 2nd, 1644)” as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 216-217

40.) Ibid.

41.) R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., Principles of Philosophy as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 227

42.) R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., “[To Mesland] On Freedom (May 2nd, 1644)” as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 216-221

43.) Ibid.

44.) Ibid.

45.) Ibid.

46.) Ibid.

47.) Ibid.

48.) R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., “[To Mesland] On Freedom (February 9th, 1645)” as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 273

49.) Ibid.

50.) R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., Principles of Philosophy as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 272

51.) R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., “[To Mesland] On Freedom (February 9th, 1645)” as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 273

52.) R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., Meditations on First Philosophy, as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 121

53.) B.D. Spinoza. E. Curley, ed., Ethics (Princeton: Penguin Books, 1996). 1

54.) Ibid. 13-16

55.) Ibid. 21-22

56.) Ibid. 19

57.) R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., Meditations on First Philosophy, as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 116

58.) B.D. Spinoza. E. Curley, ed., Ethics (Princeton: Penguin Books, 1996). 166-167

59.) R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., Meditations on First Philosophy, as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 116

60.) Ibid.

61.) Ibid.

62.) B.D. Spinoza. E. Curley, ed., Ethics (Princeton: Penguin Books, 1996). 174

63.) Ibid. 6, & R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., Meditations on First Philosophy, as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 124

64.) B.D. Spinoza. E. Curley, ed., Ethics (Princeton: Penguin Books, 1996). 32

65.) Ibid. 57-58

66.) R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., “[To Mersenne] About Galileo’s Condemnation” as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 43-45, & R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., Meditations on First Philosophy as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 97-104

67.) R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., The World as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 36-37

68.) Ibid.

69.) Ibid. 41-43

70.) Ibid.

71.) B.D. Spinoza. E. Curley, ed., Ethics (Princeton: Penguin Books, 1996). 35

72.) Ibid.

73.) Ibid.

74.) B.D. Spinoza. J. Israel, ed., Theological-Political Treatise (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). 81-97

75.) Ibid.

76.) Ibid.

77.) B.D. Spinoza. E. Curley, ed., Ethics (Princeton: Penguin Books, 1996). 160, & 168

78.) R. Descartes. R. Ariew trans., Rules for the Direction of the Mind as found in Rene Descartes: Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000). 3-7

79.) B.D. Spinoza. E. Curley, ed., Ethics (Princeton: Penguin Books, 1996). 160, & 168

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