Freedom and the Will


In Meditation Four, Descartes has the Meditator articulate a view of the will and of its role in accounting for the possibility of error in a way that locates responsibility for error within ourselves. In the process, he articulates a view of human freedom that is not just obvious to everyone what thinks about it. At one point, the Meditator says:


…the will simply consists in our ability to do or not do something (that is, to affirm or deny, to pursue or avoid); or rather, it consists simply in the fact that when the intellect puts something forward, we are moved to affirm or deny or pursue or avoid it in such a way that we do not feel ourselves to be determined by any external force. For in order to be free, there is no need for me to be capable of going in each of two directions; on the contrary, the more I incline in one direction — either because I clearly understand that reasons of truth and goodness point that way, or because of a divinely produced disposition of my inmost thoughts — the freer is my choice. Neither divine grace nor natural knowledge ever diminishes freedom; on the contrary, they increase and strengthen it.

Accepting that this view is correct might require some of us to give up strongly held intuitions or convictions concerning what constitutes freedom. For example, according to this view the following scenario should not lead you to think you are not free:

Imagine you find a book that has your name on the spine. You open it up and start reading, and, sure enough, it is about you. It details the events of your birth and childhood in ways that correspond with what you have been told about them, and then tells the story of your youth and adolescence in amazing detail (reminding you of a whole lot of things you had completely forgotten about). You keep reading (because, hey, its a great story, right!) and eventually you get to a page that discusses your finding a book that has your name on the spine, opening it up and starting to read, etc… Once the chills go away, you notice that there are a whole lot more pages in the book, and you begin to wonder whether those pages are empty at this point or whether they contain the entire story of your future. Unable to prevent yourself from peeking, you take a look. Sure enough, all the pages have already been written.

Take some time to think about this scenario and about your responses to the following questions:

  1. Assuming that the remaining pages are just as accurate as the previous pages, would you be prone to reconsider any of your beliefs about your freedom? Why or why not?
  2. Assuming that a view of freedom that is compatible with this scenario is lacking in some way, what else would be required for freedom? Do we have any good reasons to believe that we are free in that sense?
  3. Why should this issue concern someone who, like the Meditator, has become convinced of the existence of an infinitely perfect creator?

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