Examining Free-Will Through Spinoza and Descartes

By Rocco A. Astore
2016, Vol. 8 No. 02 | pg. 1/2 |

Within the works of Spinoza, as well as those of Descartes, issues concerning the nature of free-will come to the fore. With this essay, I will first explain Spinoza’s and Descartes’s notions regarding freedom of the will, its existence, and its scope. I will then describe the differences in their philosophical positions, and argue in favor of Spinoza’s view on this matter. Finally, I will hope to show that Spinoza’s more deterministic position on this issue successfully bypasses the array of problems that follow from Descartes’s compatibilism.

According to Spinoza, for something to be entirely free it must be uncompelled in all ways and also the cause of itself.1 Furthermore, because he believes that there is only one substance that causes itself, which is God, or Nature, and since he states it is uncompelled due to its existence being identical to its essence, it follows that due to its essence being of a self-determined nature, it by necessity exists without being dependent on any other being.2 Also, since God is uncompelled, all things that derive from it are modes of its attributes and are not to be understood as being at the same level of freedom as it.3 This is because, to Spinoza there can only be one substance, God, and that which derives from its infinitely many attributes, such as people, are not totally free but are rather physically and mentally dependent on its existence for their own continuity.4

In other words, since only a substance can be uncompelled and free, it follows that only God as the cause of itself can be attributed as being the one independent substance, while people, who are extended, as well as rational beings, governed by the laws of the mind and body, are so because they are modes of God’s attributes of thought and extension.5 Consequently, by being modes of God’s attributes of thought and extension, people are limited expressions of God because only God possesses infinitely many attributes, whereas people possess none, and thus what they conceive to be their free-will is only an infinitesimal way of conveying God’s will.6

This is because people can only conceive God in two ways and hence, their ability to express God’s attribute of freedom is limited by the mental, as well as, physical laws which causes one’s understanding of God to only be so through thought and extension.7 Finally, one can understand this as a result of the limits of human nature, and because one cannot adequately conceive all of God’s attributes, he/she is neither unlimitedly free, nor at the same level of freedom as is God.8

Furthermore, Spinoza claims that traditional ways of understanding free-will are erroneous, because it is not an independent faculty of the mind, rather it is a notion that assists one to persevere in their being, even if they are not fully aware of it.9 He believes that free-will is not an independent faculty of the mind because it is as equally as real as any other self-regarding concept one may form, and therefore, one cannot claim that it takes precedence over their other supposed mental faculties.10

Consequently, since all faculties are equally real, he claims that the mind is actually singular in nature, and that faculties of the mind are not truly separate, but rather, they are one and the same.11 Finally, one can infer that because all faculties of the mind are equally real, as well as of an equal intensity, there are no independent or free faculties of the mind, rather it is an intertwined whole.12

Also, Spinoza claims, the illusion of free-will derives from one’s desire to maintain their being insofar as they understand it at that moment.13 In other words, free-will is a misnomer given to what one confusedly conceives of as being their ability to freely choose, because the illusion of free-will is an integral part for preserving who they are at any given time. Furthermore, because one naturally strives to continue to exists, it follows that freedom of the will is not only dependent on desire, it is also a drive that is linked to what is good or bad relative to each person.14

To Spinoza, when one mistakenly thinks they are choosing to do something good, they are in fact just following what is conducive to maintaining who they are insofar as they understand themselves at that instant.15 Likewise, when one understands themselves as choosing what is regarded as bad, it is due to them mistakenly believing that their choice will assists them to persevere, when in actuality it is detrimental to their being.16 Hence, one errs when they believe themselves to be freely choosing, because, they are in fact not really choosing, since what is claimed to be good is actually just a fulfillment of a want one has to continue to exist, and what is claimed to be bad is the result of a mistaken notion that one thought would be beneficial to that continuity.17 Finally, because of this, one can infer that there is also a link between free-will and knowledge, since the mistaken understanding of choice persists due to ignorance.18

Spinoza also addresses issues concerning knowledge and its relation to free-will. According to him, the more knowledge one has, the better is their understanding of themselves, and in turn, their ability to express God’s freedom in their own limited way is heightened.19 To Spinoza, this is human freedom, and though it is not totally free, it is nevertheless what people can use in order to align themselves with the will of God, as far as the knowledge of their own indefinite nature allows.20 Furthermore, though he claims freedom of the will is illusory, it can be the case that an increase in one’s knowledge of causes can help one to override, or to restrain the affects have over them.21 In other words, through the cultivation of reason one can come to have a certain amount of authority over their lives insofar as they are people, and not the one uncompelled substance, or God.

Spinoza further addresses the means needed to cultivate one’s mind, in order to enhance their own way of understanding their ability to express God’s freedom.22 He believes that people can be affected by external causes, which can either be tamed or eradicated by other affects which are more powerful in comparison to them.23 This is important to note, because to subdue these affects one can use their mind to contemplate ideas that are greater in nature than those which can deter one from aligning their will with God’s.24 Also, since he believes that one can cultivate reason for this end, and in turn, become more aware of the extent of their freedom, one can then use this awareness to assist themselves to better disregard affects which are contrary to their nature at that time.25

Furthermore, Spinoza states people can overcome the influence that outside affects have over them by exercising reason. This he claims is possible by knowing the nature of affects, remembering that the knowledge of affects are better known than not, understanding that affects can assist one in ethical life, and that the mind has the power to order affects according to their importance, or degree of power they have over the mind.26 This is because, by having knowledge of the nature of affects one can better recognize them as either being conducive or detrimental to their self-preservation. Also, the knowledge of affects are better known than not, since one can use their understanding of affects to form clear and distinct ideas, which can further accustom him/her to apply their reason, and in the process, develop a stronger mind that can recognize its inherent ability to know the truth of things, or that which agrees with one’s nature, insofar as they understand themselves at that time.27

Knowledgeof God can also assist one to live in an ethical way, because by being the greatest idea one could have, God, to Spinoza, is the cause of people’s ability to apply reason knowledge to their lives for the purpose of being able to override affects which can impede them from persevering in their being. Hence, this ability, can in turn, lead one to intellectually love God, and upon reflection, Spinoza believes one cannot truly despise God.28 This is because, to Spinoza, one has an adequate idea of God, or the cause of all things, and this idea of God cannot produce hate or sadness, since these feelings are only felt when one has an inadequate idea of what caused them to feel in a way that is unusual in comparison to their regular emotional understanding of themselves.29

Hence, though God can be equated as being ultimately the cause of hate or sadness, the power of these emotions are dependent on how one allows themselves to be affected by them, which is based upon the degree of knowledge one has as to what caused them to feel that way and why.30 Finally, people, by having the power to put affects in order, based on their intensity, which derives from one’s natural ability to order ideas, since they are part of the causal chain following from God’s existence, can truly deny the influence of certain affects, especially those that could be called evil, or, to Spinoza, ones that dampen the progress of one’s ability to think.31

According to the philosopher Descartes, there is one infinite substance which can create anything due to its completely free will.32 To him, this immaterial being is the cause of the existence of minds, which are free, and independent substances like it.33 Though Descartes believes that thinking things, such as people, are free in nature, he claims that they must not understand their capacity to be free as being at an equal level to this substance’s, or God’s freedom.

This is because, as their cause, God, is at least as great as their existence, since it is antecedent to them.34 Hence, one can infer that Descartes believes God is more perfect than people, and because of this it follows that God’s attributes are more powerful than theirs, which, in turn, can lead one to believe that God is also freer than people.35 Though this seems to be the case, Descartes also maintains that people are independent beings, and do possess attributes, since they are substances. This leads him to conclude that people do have free-will, and that this faculty is one of the many attributes, or other mental capabilities that people possess.36

Furthermore, he believes mental faculties are independent of one another, yet work together, because one can clearly and distinctly perceive each one to exist.37 This is because, God has impressed upon people’s minds innate ideas, which derived from its essence, and these ideas are enlivened by the use of one’s rational faculties.38 Hence, through introspection, one can gain self-knowledge, and by recognizing, as far as human reason allows, the operations of God, he/she can come to a better understanding of themselves as being a reflection of those operations.

Also, because people are free substances, it follows that in Descartes’s view, freedom of the will exist, since it is not only naturally imbedded on people’s minds because they are created by God, it is also known when one makes use of their rational faculties.39 By the application of one’s mind, which indicates an ability one has to choose, it follows that one could begin to comprehend the nature of free-will in a clearer way, if they decide to do so.40 Finally, though he believes that freedom of the will exists, to Descartes, it is misunderstood, and hence, he claims that the way people comprehend this concept, needs to be rectified in order to better assist them in ethical life.41

To Descartes, freedom of the will exists, and it is described as that which gives rise to a volition.42 He believes that this is case, because the mind has the capacity to choose for itself insofar as it has adequate knowledge of the cause of its existence.43 Furthermore, to Descartes, the more knowledge one has of the nature of principles which can give rise to something such as, moral acts, the more they will assert their understanding, by deciding upon ethical questions in a decisive, yet rational way.

One could understand this as Descartes supporting the notion that people can refine their ability to be free, through reason, which would ultimately result in a greater capacity one has for freedom. Thus, one could continue to infer that in Descartes’s view, free-will is an expression of knowledge that derives from one’s understanding of their innate ideas, which comes from God.44 Also, Descartes claims the existence of free-will is supported by the potential people have to turn away, or refrain from what they believe is contrary to their nature.45

Hence, to him, one asserts their free-will through choosing not to do what one deems to be disagreeable to who they are, and because of that, free-will could also be understood as a faculty, which is in the service of the mind, enabling one to not only recognize truth, but also to become a unique, self-determined, and authentic individual.46 Finally, free-will is needed in order for one to clearly know that they are distinct, because by knowing their freedom, one can more easily carve a path of their own throughout life that is in line with truth, which comes from one’s adequate knowledge of the cause of their freedom, or God.47

Furthermore, Descartes believes, free-will is not inadequately understood, since this would result in one not being able to form the idea of their own freedom, which he claims cannot be the case because people do in fact know that they are free, since they have an ability to form an idea of it.48

This is because God, who left an imprint on people’s minds, in order for them to clearly understand their free-will, has also enabled them to know the scope of their freedom since the innate knowledge one has of their ability to be free is sufficient enough for life, because it is a product of God’s perfection.49 Hence, God’s perfection, as the cause of people’s minds, and subsequently the mental faculty of free-will, is not of an imperfect nature, rather it is geared towards what is true, and since he claims what is true is also good, this faculty is to be understood as pure, as long as it is used properly.50 Hence, one can infer, that in Descartes’s view, free-will is tied to reason insofar as an increase in knowledge can lead a person to become more aware of their ability to be free. Finally, to Descartes, this is accomplished through one’s own choice to cultivate their mind’s ability to assert its freedom, by habitually acting in a way that expresses their will morally.51

The differences between Spinoza’s and Descartes’s notions of freedom, derive from their different ways of understanding innate ideas and of the nature of God. I believe this is the case because if one refers to Descartes writings, they can conclude that he believes innate ideas are caused by God as a creator, who had left a stamp, or signature on the mind in the form of these ideas, which includes the clear and distinct knowledge one has of their freedom.52 On the other hand, I believe Spinoza thinks of innate ideas as being synonymous with what the mind can clearly know, only insofar as it is a mode of God’s attribute of thought.53

This is because to Spinoza, a mode is not at the same level of perfection as an attribute, let alone the one infinite substance, or God.54 Hence, it follows that it is not in the nature of a mode to be able to express in its entirety either God, or one of God’s attributes. Thus, I believe, Spinoza could be understood as claiming that people are expressions of God, and since God is free people can express God’s freedom, but only in a narrow way due to their understanding of freedom being clouded.55 This is due to the limits of their knowledge, which bars them from knowing freedom in-itself, or the full understanding of God’s attribute of freedom as if one were God itself.56

Furthermore, innate ideas to Descartes, as opposed to Spinoza’s understanding of them, are pure and fully understandable faculties of the mind, known by people in virtue of them being created as distinct and independent substances, and hence, they could be attributed as possessing a greater amount of free-will than what Spinoza believes them to have.57 This is because, Spinoza does not believe it is the case that the mind’s ability to be free, is initially known in its entirety, and one must cultivate their mind, in order to realize the capabilities of it.58 Also, innate ideas to Descartes, can be used as a justification for God’s existence, and since freedom derives from God, it can be used to support the existence free-will too.59 This is because, Descartes believes that an effect reveals its cause, due to his belief that something must be caused by something else, in order for it to exists, and since he concludes that he is a thinking thing, it follows that the mind must derive from something other than, yet akin to its immateriality.60 This he claims leads back to one source, God, and since God is the cause of itself, it follows that it is totally free, and people by being a microcosm of God are free too.61

Though Spinoza thinks along these lines, there are sharp contrasts. To Spinoza, innate ideas do in fact justify the existence of God, but not necessarily of free-will.62 This is because, as Spinoza claims (which is a variation of a claim made by Descartes, in his Meditations), though an effect reveals its cause, its cause must be greater in power than it, in order for it to have been caused.63 Hence, this leads Spinoza to believe that innate ideas exists in a limited way as compared to those of their cause, or God.64 Furthermore, because God is the cause of itself, it follows that only it can be attributed as being free, and since people, by being less powerful than God, can only express God’s freedom to the extent of what their nature allows, one can infer that their innate idea of freedom is initially of a confused nature.65

Descartes’s notions concerning freedom of the will, can lead one to wonder how his belief in a mechanical universe is compatible with his notions of an immaterial mind, a totally free God, and one’s innate ability to express their freedom.66 To Descartes, an immaterial mind is possible due to his belief that God is a force which precedes the laws of the universe, and by freely causing these laws, it is unlimited in all ways.67 By being unlimited, God has the power to create, and one can infer that to Descartes, something such as miracles are possible due to God’s ability to intervene in nature, because God’s existence is outside of nature’s domain.68

Furthermore, Descartes believes one’s ability to express their freedom derives from them being independent substances that are reflections of God’s essence, and because God’s essence is free, it follows that people are naturally free as well.69 Yet, the consequences of holding to these beliefs, I believe, can lead one to misunderstand their ability to be free. This is because, his notions can give way to questions, such as: How can a free, and immaterial mind be united to a body whose movements are determined? How could God be uncompelled in all ways, if all beings are subject to the laws of nature? And finally, how can it be the case that people are free, even when Descartes openly states people are not only physically compelled by the laws of nature, but they are also limited mentally?70

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