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Descartes Free Will Essay

In Meditations on First Philosophy Descartes attempts to explain the cause of errors in human beings. Descartes says that error occurs “since the will extends further than the intellect” (Descartes p. 39). That’s because our intellect is something that is finite; it is limited to the perception of only certain things. Whereas our will, ability to choose is not limited; it is has an infinite capacity. Therefore we sometimes attempt to will things which we do not have a complete understanding of.

Descartes’ argument, as I will briefly describe, is quite sound, if you agree to all his conditions (being that the intellect is limited and the will infinite). I am not, as of yet, sure if I necessarily agree to the later of his two conditions. I will strive to evaluate different discernments of what will is, and if it is truly free. Then apply it to his argument. But first let me explain Descartes’ argument on the causation of errors. Descartes’ discussion begins in saying that “errors depend on the simultaneous concurrence of two causes: the faculty of knowing that is in me and the faculty of choosing” (Descartes p.

38). I will first tackle the faculty of knowing, or intellect. Descartes says that it merely perceives and understands ideas, which can later have judgment passed on them (see Descartes p. 38). The intellect is limited and finite because it can occur in different degrees. While some people have a simple understanding of a language others have a mastery of its grammar and syntax. But no one can have a mastery of all the mysteries of the universe. Then there is the faculty of choosing, as Descartes calls it, or rather the will.

Descartes says that he “experience[s] that it is limited by no boundaries whatever” (Descartes p. 38). It is seen as infinite because unlike the intellect is does to adhere to different grades. It exists merely as a matter of being able to do or not to do something; to affirm or deny something proposed by one’s intellect (see Descartes p. 38). In some cases one’s will is unable to make such a decision, Descartes says, not because of a fault in the will but rather because the intellect is lacking complete knowledge of the situation (see Descartes p. 39). It is here that one should be indifferent to passing judgment.

If in such a instance indifference is not the outcome an error is most likely to occur. Descartes says that this error will occur only when both work together because alone they cannot produce error. That’s because intellect, in and of itself, only perceives ideas which one knows and error would only occur if one tried to perceive ideas he did not know, which is impossible. The other, the will, in that it acts of itself, is only a utility of choice which alone cannot error. Therefore error and sin occur when both intellect and will work with each other.

It is the disproportion between the limit of the will and the intellect that causes blunders. The will, as I’ve stated, is a limitless aspect of ourselves and therefore can pass judgment on any proposition brought forth. But the intellect can only clearly perceive and understand very few propositions. As Descartes says it is where I “extend it (the will) to things I do not understand” (Descartes p. 39) that error is caused. That’s because one is, instead of acting indifferent, passing judgment on things that are not clear in the intellect.

A person can easily then turn away from the good and truth given to our intellect by God and partake in sin and deceit (see Descartes p. 39). The finally area that Descartes adds is that in some instances a person can pass judgment on things that aren’t understood and not produce an error. In those cases the person has still acted in an incorrect manor, but it is just be chance that the correct choice, or judgment was made (see Descartes p. 40). It is here that I have concluded Descartes’ argument and will now attempt to seek answers to my own questions: If the will is in fact as free as Descartes speaks?

If it is actually comparable to that of God’s? And if it’s ideal state is the same as that of practical use? The first aspect I would like to navigate through is the constraints placed on the ability to choose. One does not have the opportunity to choose freely in an organized society, community or institute. There seems to always be a restriction to the actual amount of choices one has. If Descartes was correct in his assumption of complete freedom of choice and will every option would be available to someone at any given time, in any given situation.

But this is not necessarily the condition. There are a few different examples that one can view to comprehend this facet of my argument. Take for instance, perhaps an extreme but an occurrence none the less, people born of poverty do not have the ability to choose to acquire certain things. It is impossible simply by the fact that they do not have the means to get it. There is no choice of purchasing a fifty dollar object if all one has is twenty dollars. I feel though that perhaps Descartes was speaking of another free will, a non-materialistic aspect.

Another example one can then try to explain is how in many middle eastern nations individuals are born into a society where one religion is forced upon them. They must live to follow this religion or risk outcast by the community or even death. In such a decision one does not have the opportunity to choose to not follow the religion because, although it may seem available, most choices against the norm bring with them an extreme consequences. Is there really a free will if one knows a consequence to be so evil, or heinous that they really have no choice but to go with the other option.

On the other hand if Descartes was strictly speaking of free will in the sense of judgment and affirmation another option arises. One should have the ability to, in a sense, will something even if its not available to him. For example if a person has been convicted of a crime and is going to be sent to prison he can will that he doesn’t have to go. Although here is seems that willing something is almost in a way the same as wishing it. But if it does follow that free will is only involved in passing judgment then a person can will whatever they want in their own mind, it doesn’t mean necessarily that they will receive it.

But one again this illustration is somewhat similar to my previous two, in that, if in actuality a choice will provide no outcome is the choice even there and if not it’s a limited faculty. The definition of limitless qualities that Descartes affiliates with the will is something that is questionable as well. Descartes, in a sense, contradicts himself when he says that he can see man’s image and likeness to God in the ability to choose because both are infinite (see Descartes p. 38). But then says that “the faculty of willing is incomparably greater in God than it is in me” because of the power and knowledge God uses with it (ibid).

So I ponder then if the ability to will cannot truly stand on its on, because by Descartes definition it passes certain judgment on something else, and that something in God is greater, how can one be equal to God. How can His infinite ability be greater than man’s infinite ability. By definition there are no degrees of infinite, there is only finite or infinite, limited or limitless. In such a practical aspect I must appeal to my reason and then say that we cannot have an equal will to that of God’s.

I say this because God’s willing can partake on any area of knowledge and have a boundless consequence over many things. Where as man’s cannot. As I said, that was my practical deduction of our will in comparison to God’s. I was sure to state practical because I do feel there is a great difference between one’s free will in a practical sense and an ideal sense. Actually in the practical sense I will be so bold as to say one’s will is not free at all. All the examples I have given are practical uses of the will. And all of these examples seem limited for a number of reasons.

As I already pointed out, I felt that the comparison between man’s will and God will not be equal because in practice will cannot stand unaccompanied. That is why the will is not free or infinite in a realistic way because it never stands by itself. It relies on other faculties that, as Descartes even says, are limited which in turn make it limited. Therefore when people are faced with choices, like in my examples, not all the options are available because of a lack of knowledge or perhaps a constraint placed on someone from his society.

If the will was able to stand alone I would agree that it is an infinite faculty but it doesn’t. Hence I must also reason that the will Descartes speaks of is not the will that can be used in practice but rather it is an ideal will. In this ideal state people would be able to will anything they wanted, although they would most likely not receive it. In an ideal state I would have been able to will that I did not have to do this paper and not receive and F on it, but I very well know that would not have been possible. But the acting of willing alone would be free and infinite.

I now must apply what I have learned to Descartes’ original argument of error. Since I have concluded that the ability to choose, or will that Descartes speaks of is ideal, this causation of error would also be ideal. Descartes said that when one should be acting indifferent to things and does not is when errors or correct choices by luck occur (see Descartes p. 39). Ideally this would be true, but in actuality many things lead to errors, and prevention of errors as well. Of course I do agree that in many cases mistakes are made because of people make judgments on things they have lack of knowledge of.

But errors and sin can also occur when people have no other choice. For instance if a person is held at gun point and told to do something he may very well be passing a false judgment on something he has total knowledge of and in turn acting in error. From the other side of the argument Descartes says that to prevent himself from ever erring he must follow his feeling of indifference and stick with it instead of attempting to affirm or deny something (see Descartes p. 41). But I must also add to this argument that society does place constraints on things to prevent people from committing errors.

Therefore it is not entirely internal. So I will conclude with saying that I have no choice but to say, from my reasoning, that in Meditation on First Philosophy Descartes speaks of a very ideal situation which would, in that state, hold true. But in the practical world one’s perception cannot be so narrow because there are many facets that contribute to what we can do and why we can do them. Works Cited Descartes, Rene. (1993). Meditations on First Philosophy . translated by Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Corp.


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