Two General Ideas of ‘Freedom’ from the Philosophers

By | October 3, 2011

By Juan Bernal

The issue regarding freedom and determinism is among the most challenging and puzzling issues confronting philosophers and others. Often this is stated in terms of the ‘free will’ problem, with some people arguing that a scientific picture of reality denies that humans have a free will. Others try to reconcile human freedom with their version of a scientific, deterministic view of reality.

There are many aspects to this issue which we could delve into; for example, the premise that the world is a deterministic world that rules out free action or choice is a premise that can be challenged. But here I briefly discuss two very different ways of handling the question of freedom (‘free will’) that we find in the history of modern Western philosophy. Versions of these two ideas of freedom are still held by many philosophers today.

Let’s call the first of these the idea of “metaphysical freedom.” This is the notion that freedom or free will, if it is a reality, occurs only in a state completely separate from all causal determinism. Here free will is conceived as a special faculty, distinct from body-brain. My two historical examples for this view of freedom come from Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant. Descartes held that that the mind / free will are a separate reality from material, corporeal reality. Kant postulated a separate noumenal realm to allow for free will unaffected by the deterministic order of the phenomenal realm.

The other set of ideas (of freedom) are those based on philosophical theories which try to explicate a common-sense idea of freedom, a notion of ‘freedom’ which is compatible with materialism and a deterministic order. My historical examples of this general approach are Benedict Spinoza, and David Hume, and brief mention of Thomas Hobbes. Each of these philosophers works with concepts of human existence and human action having their due portion of ‘freedom’ but occurring within the context of a material, corporeal ‘deterministic’ reality.

Aspects of these opposing historical views of human freedom develop into what contemporary philosophers call “indeterminism” and “compatibilism.”

The critical point to draw is that much mystery and paradox could have been avoided had philosophers not been so inclined to accept the validity of the ‘metaphysical freedom’ and opted to develop and refine that more intuitive notion of freedom held by Spinoza and Hume.

Consider the classical dualistic view of Rene Descartes (1596-1650):

Reality is dualistic, with a deterministic material reality (including the body) on one side, and the mental realm (mind, free will) completely separate from matter-body on the other side. Free will is possible only as an aspect of mind, which is undetermined and categorically separate from the body.

Now a very different view of “freedom” by one of his contemporaries: Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677).

Spinoza argued that all reality is one substance, which he called “Nature.” Nature has a material aspect and a mental aspect, but both aspects of one Nature are deterministic. Human mind and human action are part of the deterministic order of Nature, hence both are subject to the universal, deterministic order. There is no freedom if by “freedom” one means undetermined action, i.e., “freedom of indifference.” But there are varying degrees of ‘freedom’ in the sense that one’s actions stem from internal causes and are accompanied by an understanding of the causes and motives that drive those actions. In short, Spinoza tries to account for our sense of freedom within the context of what we would call scientific determinism.

Another 17th Century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), argued that Freedom (‘free will’) is compatible with deterministic, material reality.

In his famous work, The Leviathan, Hobbes tells us that when we use the word free will, we mean nothing more than that action of a person who is not prevented from doing “what he has the will, desire, or inclination to do.” In other words, a person acts freely when he does what he wants to do or acts so as to realize what he sees as being beneficial to him. The fact that all actions “proceed” from some cause does not negate the common-sense notion of free action as unhindered, non-coerced action.

In the 18th century we had analogous opposition between views by two mainstream philosophers:

David Hume (1711-1776) argued along the lines of Hobbes that although actions are causally determined, they’re not forced actions. We enjoy liberty of spontaneity.
He distinguished between “liberty of indifference” (uncaused action) and “liberty of spontaneity,” doing what one wants to do.

“It is one thing to perform an uncaused action (if one can conceive such a thing), another to do what you want. Conversely, it is one thing to act from intelligible and natural motives, quite another thing to be compelled to do what you do not want to do or prevented from doing what you want. Everyone really agrees that, except for prisoners, men enjoy liberty of spontaneity but not that of indifference, [everyone agrees] that they are subject to the necessity of cause, but not that of constraint.”

In short, there is no theoretical reason for denying that we enjoy some degree of freedom, even if we have to admit that our actions can all be causally explained. On the other hand ….

German philosopher, Immanuel Kant: (1724-1804), postulated a two-world philosophy (“Transcendental Idealism”) and argued that freedom (‘free will’) cannot be found in the phenomenal world, but requires a separate world-in-itself, i.e. a noumenal realm.

Kant locates determinism in the empirical world or world of appearances, and freedom in the world of things-in-themselves, the world of reason. It is important that the latter world is not in time. Kant sees no difficulty in our accepting the postulate of freedom, because there is no contradiction in thinking of the will as free.

“As an object of theoretical scrutiny, I must regard myself as a phenomenon, subject to the deterministic order of all phenomena; as a moral agent possessed of a will, I transfer myself to the intelligible world of noumena. I can be at once under necessity qua phenomenon, and free qua noumenon.”

In short, like Descartes but in a different way, Kant divides the world into two realms and places freedom (free -will) in the realm which is not subject to the deterministic order.

For Kant as with Descartes, “Freedom” requires a complete break with causal determinism.

In what sense did Spinoza deny free will? Only in the sense of a ‘free will’ which purports to be free of all causal conditions. He affirmed a capacity we could call “creative freedom.”

“… Spinoza was concerned to point the way to human freedom through understanding and natural knowledge.” Stuart Hampshire, Spinoza

Unlike Descartes and Kant, Spinoza does not postulate a dualistic reality, with free will residing in a mental, non-material realm or in a noumenal realm (a realm underlying the phenomenal world; we lack knowledge of this noumenal realm).

Unlike Descartes and Kant, Spinoza does not see free will as a strange, special mental faculty, existing apart from body-brain.

With Descartes and Kant we get the concept of freedom as a category which is either completely present or completely absent. Either we enjoy a pure freedom (not causally conditioned at all), we have no freedom at all.

With Spinoza, Hobbes, and Hume we get a concept of freedom which allows for degrees of freedom. Freedom is not a category whose essence denies possibility of lesser and greater freedom.

In my view, many of the paradoxes associated with the ‘free will / determinism’ problem could have been avoided had philosophers paid more attention to the views of ‘freedom’ articulated by Spinoza, Hobbes, and Hume; and had they been more critical concerning the notion of metaphysical freedom advanced or assumed by Descartes and Kant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *