René Descartes had three fundamental goals in his philosophy: (1) he wanted to find something certain—a goal which flows from his modern agenda to sweep away the mistakes of the past and find a new method to reach the truth once and for all; (2) he wanted to discover a fundamental and general principle that would unify the sciences and allow us to deduce all answers to all scientific questions; and (3) he wanted to make some room for human freedom and not reduce everything to determined matter in motion. In his Meditations on First Philosophy, he argued that the proposition “I am, I exist” was certain since to doubt it ends up proving it. After all, you cannot doubt if you don’t exist! So he thought goal (1) was achieved. He then tried to establish goal (2) by arguing for the existence of God who, in his ultimate goodness, would make the empirical and mathematical grounds for science secure (if we err it is because we aren’t cautious in our judgments and jump to conclusions). But how did Descartes achieve goal (3)? How did he account for freedom? In previous blogs I have presented a variety of arguments in defense of freedom. In this blog, I want to focus on Descartes’ reasons for believing we are free in order to provide yet another argument against determinism and for free will.
In his work The Principles of Philosophy (1644), Descartes makes a connection between free will and doubt. In principle VI he writes:
“We have free will, enabling us to withhold our assent in doubtful matters and hence avoid error. But whoever turns out to have created us, and however powerful and deceitful he may be, in the meantime we nonetheless experience within us the kind of freedom which enables us always to refrain from believing things which are not completely certain and thoroughly examined. Hence we are able to take precautions against going wrong on any occasion.”
Apparently free will is manifested in our ability to doubt: to withhold assent to things that don’t seem certain to us. In his Meditations, Descartes presents and employs what has become known as “the method of doubt” which says that any belief that can be rationally doubted (a doubt that doesn’t imply a contradiction) will be considered false for purposes of finding something certain (something beyond rational doubt). This radical method of doubt reveals our radical freedom. This is a truly novel thesis; it is one that, as David Detmer makes clear, influenced Jean-Paul Sartre’s efforts to demonstrate freedom:
“Sartre agrees with Descartes that methodical doubt is “the very model of the free act”….Were I completely engulfed in the world, bound by the chains of a thorough-going causal determinism, it would be quite impossible for me to effect that degree of separation from the world which is necessary if I am to call that world into question. It is only because I am not the world, and because I am free from the world, that I am able to effect that nihilating withdrawal from being that is involved in doubt. For this discovery Sartre credits Descartes: “no one before Descartes had stressed the connection between free will and negativity. No one had shown that freedom does not come from man as he is …, but rather from man as he is not.”
But Descartes’ assertion of free will in relation to doubt in Principle VI is no argument. I think we can fill in some plausible premises if we emphasize possibility and connect possibility to doubt; something Sartre does in Being and Nothingness: “Doubt can be understood only in terms of the always open possibility that future evidence may “remove” it; it can be grasped as doubt only in so far as it refers to possibilities…”.
Once we emphasize possibility we can argue as follows:
Free will is a matter of entertaining possibilities and negating some or all of them.
When we doubt we entertain possibilities and negate some or all of them.
Therefore, doubting is a free act.
Now, determinism is the view that every event is the necessary outcome of previous causes: there are no possibilities in the world, only necessities. If determinism is true then there is no free will since, as we have seen above, free will is a matter of entertaining possibilities and in a determined world no possibilities exist. But when we doubt we entertain possibilities…don’t we? Aren’t you entertaining possibilities and doubting something in this blog? If so, then we have an argument against determinism:
If we were totally determined by laws of nature then we wouldn’t be able to doubt (since doubt occurs by entertaining possibilities and a determined world is a place of necessities alone).
But we can doubt as we know from our experience and from Descartes’ magnificent drama of doubt, Meditations on First Philosophy.
Therefore, determinism is false and we are free.
See The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. I, translated by Cottingham, Stoothoff, and Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) p. 194.