Descartes Free Will

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  • Topic: Choice, Free will, Mind
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  • Published : March 27, 2002
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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...
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