56. Freedom and Doubt

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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…”.[3]

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.


[1]See The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Vol. I, translated by Cottingham, Stoothoff, and Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) p. 194.

[2] David Detmer, Freedom as a Value (La Salle: Open Court, 1986), p. 27.

[3] Translated by Hazel Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1956), p. 152.

4 thoughts on “56. Freedom and Doubt

  1. Rhombus on

    The inclusion of doubt seems unnecessary here. It can equally and more directly be said that the act of choosing one option out of many shows the existence of free will. But it cannot be worded this way, because it would then become prey to common determinism arguments. Therefore the use of the word “doubt” and rephrasing in the negative context is nothing but a dress-up in order to deceive the reader into thinking a new argument had been presented.

    You also make mention of doubt not being “determined by laws of nature”. Is this also an argument for a supernatural mechanism?

  2. Dwight Goodyear on

    Thanks for your comment. You seem to imply that, as you say, “choosing one option out of many” is equivalent to doubting; you think doubt is simply a deceptive way of talking about free will as actual choice. That might be the case once an adequate analysis of all these concepts is undertaken. But according to Descartes and Sartre, doubt is not necessarily choosing one option from among many but rather “withholding our assent” (see Rule VI above). This withholding is a negation or withdrawal from the world that opens a space for possibilities from which to choose. The freedom of doubt thus appears to be more fundamental than choice. Might there NOT be a world at all? Might there be an evil demon who can make 2+3 NOT equal 5? Might I NOT exist someday? Why NOT? From these doubts, from these negations, possibilities from which to choose emerge. Once we see this, we cannot reduce free will to the act of choosing one option over another; rather, we need to also think of it as including the power of negation that allows FOR choice. This, of course, may all be wrong. But if one accepts the basic vision of the above then clearly determinism would be false since there are no possibilities and thus no negating doubts in a world of necessities. Moreover, this does not fall “prey” to the determinism argument since to JUSTIFY, rather than EXPLAIN, determinism one must not be a determinist. After all, an argument is a justification for a view on an issue that is chosen from among possibilities. We currently have an issue on the table: are humans determined or free? We then deliberate, choose a possibility, and then try to give logical reasons for why we believe the way we do. This is critical thinking. But if we were all determined there would be no possibilities from which to choose and no free will to make the choice. And there would be no such thing as reason-giving that proceeds in accordance with the rules of logic; rather, there would only be physical cause and effect relations that proceed in accordance with the laws of nature. There would be no arguing at all (see my blog called “freedom and critical thinking” for a defense of this claim). So I think he who argues for determinism falls prey to Descartes’ account of freedom and doubt…not vice versa. Lastly, you ask whether this account of doubt would imply a “supernatural mechanism”. It certainly does for Descartes; and I think this makes some sense. After all, how can freedom emerge from that which is not free? Kierkegaard, for example, argued that freedom is an aspect of the eternal in man; it is not something we create, not something that emerges, and not something we can escape or fully control. It is a gift from the free God and despair is the ongoing and doomed effort to negate this gift. Freedom comes from freedom. But perhaps the human mind is an emergent power OF nature that has intentionality, freedom, and other properties. This seems hard to understand given a determined world. But a lot rides on how we define nature, law, and associated concepts like cause and effect. If the so-called laws of nature are more like regularities that do admit of exceptions and indeterminate events then we might see the emergence of freedom in a different light. I am more inclined to link freedom with a non-physical, self-moving soul.

  3. Rhombus on

    You say that “an argument is a justification for a view on an issue that is chosen from among possibilities” and “if we were all determined there would be no possibilities from which to choose,” but I don’t necessarily see the connection between these two statements. If you think of Emerson and the idea that there is a truth out there and we are all given a different and limited view on it, then there would need to be arguments in order to meld everyone’s limited views into a more complete one. In other words, the differences in limited perspectives of truth is what creates the mirage of different possibilities, and the illusion of free will created by consciousness gives us the idea that we can choose between them.

  4. Dwight Goodyear on

    You write: “You say that “an argument is a justification for a view on an issue that is chosen from among possibilities” and “if we were all determined there would be no possibilities from which to choose,” but I don’t necessarily see the connection between these two statements.”

    The connection between the two statements is this. Determinism implies that there are only necessities no possibilities. If one is a determinist, one understands all events in terms of cause and effect relations, that is, in terms of explanations. But arguments are composed of propositions that logically or do not logically ENTAIL one another in accordance with rules of inference and the fundamental laws of logic. But logical entailment is certainly NOT a matter of cause and effect. Moreover, arguing typically entails trying to convince someone by rational persuasion rather than force. This persuasion implies freedom to accept or deny a conclusion (doubt as negation again!). Suppose a judge asks: why did you do this terrible crime? The judge is not asking for a physical account of cause and effect mechanisms that necessitated an outcome. Rather, he is asking for the reasons YOU have for CHOOSING that course of action OVER another. He is, of course, asking for a justification rather than an explanation. And justification only makes sense by assuming 1) there were other courses of action that could have been taken, i.e., possibilities; and 2) that there is indeed a difference between reason-based, inferential relations between abstract propositions and cause and effect-based physical relations between material composites. So, again, if a determinist seeks to ARGUE in defense of determinism then he is providing propositions that do or do not logically entail one another and this is not a matter of cause and effect. And if the determinist seeks to argue that his view is more convincing than another he is not engaging in physical force but rational persuasion; and this presupposes the freedom to adopt or not adopt his conclusion. To deny this is to assert that the so-called argument would NOT be propositional and inferential but rather a set of physical causes giving rise to determined effects in someone’s brain. But then there would be no argument at all: there would simply be matter in motion unfolding with necessity in accordance with the laws of nature and we would be back to explanations. In your last post you say there would need to be arguments to meld everyone’s views together and so on. But there wouldn’t be arguments at all in the determined world you paint with no possibility and freedom.

    I hope that helps you understand my position. Like I said, I address some of these issues in more detail in my blog “freedom and critical thinking”. But I would be happy to defend this view further so feel free to ask more questions.

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