on free will and what is good

I have a final exam in philosophy in one hour. I should be reviewing the texts again, but I am tired of it. I am not to the point where I am not wanting to read any more… I am thinking of taking Hume out on my four day camping trip, instead I am tired of reading in this state of preparation, searching for no answers, just shoring up my notions of how each philosopher’s system works so that I might pass a test.

Hobbes wasn’t bothered by the seemingly contradictory notion of determinism and liberty. Nor Spinoza, nor Descartes I might add. Hobbes wrote that liberty and determinism could inhabit something such as water has liberty to move about and yet was determined by the shape of the river bank in its direction.

Spinoza and Descartes had a different spin on it; one that is appealing to think about. Let’s see if I can paraphrase coherently this early in the morning (good practice for the final exam eh).

We have a notion of free will, of being able to do whatever the hell we want. We can die our hair green and play in a punk band, attend PTA meetings, eat greasy cheeseburgers, smoke cigarettes, play baseball, grow a beard, speed in a vehicle, fold napkins, take meth, groom dogs… an infinity of things. Because of the mind-boggling amount of available actions for us to choose from, and because we make this choice at the present moment, or we plan for such a behavior in the future, we have this notion that we have free will.

Yet the events that have led up to this current moment are the result of past events, which come from many different directions, back to infinity. I am petting my cat right now because I have a cat that I rescued from a parking lot, who was left there by a jealous wife, who was angry at her husband for X, who behaved in such a manner because of X; each incident with its own chain of causality stretching back into infinity.

We are, therefore, acted upon by an infinity of causes putting us to a specific moment. Our response at that moment is likewise another chain in a long lists of causalities. I might think twice about doing something after having done it before and having negative results. (Hobbes, Locke, and Hume all stressed the importance of experience in learning. Recall the importance of learning and memory in decison making in contemporary psychology.)

We are in a place of causality acting out of causality, and from where do we get the notion of free will? This is why Spinoza said (somewhere, a letter perhaps) that if a rock were hurtling through space but was unaware of its beginning or ending points, but was aware of its current state, it would think itself self-directing. Emotions are, among other things, habits of mental states, as are other motives of the mind. We are less “free” than we think at all times.

Reason, then, is a tool which allows us to break somewhat out of this reactive mode of being. By reason we learn to distinquish what is bad, good, or best for our self, and we can then begin to choose accordingly. The wiser one becomes, the more that person will act in accordance with what is good for self. Behaving otherwise would entail the influence or bearing of something else, a restriction or determinate, that limits the understanding of what is truly good, and in this respect one is again not really free but being determined in one’s actions by other forces.

One isn’t free when one chooses to behave in a self depreciating manner. One is free when one acts in manner that is best for the self.

“The Passivity of passion is human bondage, the action of reason is human liberty. Freedom is not from causal law or process, but from partial passion or impulse; and freedom not from passion, but from uncoordinated and uncompleted passion. We are free only where we know. To be a superman is to be free not from the restraints of social justice and amenity, but from the individualism of the instincts.” – Will Durrant commenting on Spinoza.

I cannot help but think of the examples of smoking, drug use, excessive alcohol drinking, and other obviously (to a clear mind) self-destructive behaviors.


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