Descartes: On Thinking and Free Will

2011 Mar 09

Descartes claims that at least he is sure that he exists in the second meditation. I am going to state his argument as follows:

IF I think, THEN it follows that I have a soul (mind).
IF I have a soul, THEN it follows that I exist.
I think
∴ I exist

From his discussion, the reader gathers that, if all else, I know that I am at least a thinking thing. Descartes asserts that he knows more of the nature of his own self than of anything else – the bodies I touch and see – such as a piece of wax.

He remarks that even though one may think it is an easy feat to “know the nature” of a piece of wax – the knowing of the wax’s nature is actually somewhat confusing when analyzed in depth.

When I analyze the wax through the senses (e.g. touch, smell, etc.), I notice that there is nothing consistent about the wax’s physical characteristics – what I may have originally thought of as its nature. The wax changes shape “when held to a fire, it loses its smell, the color changes, and it becomes liquid and hot” – and even though all of this happens, I still recognize it as the same piece of wax. With further observation, when I attempt to come up with “what the wax could not be without” – flexibility, changeability, extension – it becomes clear that, in the end, my Not-Well-Thought-Out definition of Wax-Nature is merely a result of my Prone-To-Error-Method of evaluating with my mind.

All the while, “the method that leads me to believe that the wax exists – that I see it – leads me to believe the more obvious conclusion that I exist.” Since there has to be this I to/that observes, perceives, and judges. I exist “follows from any bases for judging that the wax exists – or anything else that exists besides me.”

Descartes argument for existence of I put in another way:

Imagine a Polaroid Instant Camera that has consciousness. It is able to walk around, looking for things to take pictures of. He, in particular, likes to take pictures of a certain green meadow with a contrasting blue sky.

Every once in a while, he becomes “sick”, and instead of clear, color photographs, some vignetting shows on a corner, or the sun’s light drowns out his pretty meadow and sky. He knows that it is the same meadow and sky, but at the same time acknowledges that his parts are prone to error.

He entertains the notion that perhaps all this time there never was a meadow and a sky – that maybe his parts are so faulty they produce photographs that merely appear very much like a meadow and a sky. Or perhaps he is one of those “crazy” cameras who have to spend their entire lives trapped on things called tripods indoors, not allowed to move, “looking” at huge screens that look like meadows, skies, and roads.

The whimsical Polaroid Instant Camera concludes that he knows that at least he (I-consciousness) exists because he produces photographs¹ – whether or not they are accurate to what is around him. He knows he is at least a “photograph producing thing”.

Perhaps it is just my generation, but we have had the confidence of this assertion – I think, therefore I exist – all of our lives due mainly to R.L. Stine², various episodes of The Simpsons, Twilight Zone reruns, and The Matrix. Even if it turned out I was a ghost who could not accept my death, or that everything around me was a dream, I thought³ that so long as I was thinking I existed in some matterful4 way. I specify matterful, since thinking is not necessarily a condition for existing (e.g. sculptures exist, robots exist, etc.). It does not matter much to me if I exist and am not thinking.

My first semester at Western, I took Theory of Knowledge, there we had discussed  Descartes’ Dream Argument in much depth, skimming over arguments for “I think, therefore I must exist” because none of us would ever argue against that. Especially since, if I were to question to myself, “Maybe I am tricked into thinking that I am now thinking,” I would say that I am still thinking – an easy fix to that worry.

However, I have laid out several cases that produce concerns for me.

¹ For this example, “photographs” would be similar to a thought or a judgment. Ignore “plot holes” in my metaphor such as the camera exhibiting actual judgments and thoughts about his predicament similar to you or me realizing that we are thinking things.
² R.L. Stine was a popular children’s horror novelist in the early 1990s. (Technically, he is still around, but he is not as popular anymore.) He wrote the Goosebumps and Fear Street series, among others. The bulk of his “twists” included: the main character turned out to be the ghost and the ghosts who he was afraid of were the actual living, everything was a dream, or that the main character was psychotic and the ghosts/friends were hallucinations. It became very predictable after a while. Needless to say, movies such as The Sixth Sense and The Others were a letdown for any former Stine fan-child.

³ Hahaha! Every time I write I, or think, and imply in any way that I exist as some thinking thing for the rest of this paper, I chuckle. I am so used to these terms I do not know what else to put in their place.
Matterful: a made-up word that I use in place for some form of “way that genuinely matters”

The Cases

A. Gertie
A normal person in every characteristic we normally attribute to a normal person. Gertie has full control/free reign of her thoughts; she forms judgments and understandings and the like.

B. Herbie
A person who gets tricked by mad scientist – relinquishing control of his mind to said scientist. When scientist is in control of Herbie, all of his genuine thoughts are replaced by the scientist’s synthetic thoughts. Herbie’s mind is essentially fully controlled to do the bidding of the scientist – his persona, dead.

It could technically be argued that Herbie still has a mind – but a mind that is not free to think whatever it wants. All of its thoughts are “fed” to it (perhaps in a similar way to a how a radio plays songs) – from how Herbie is feeling, to what Herbie is going to do that day.

There is a potential that the scientist could abandon mind control of Herbie, and Herbie could become once again, like Gertie.

C. Isaac
A person who results from a mad scientist’s experiment. Scientist has controlled Isaac’s mind all of his life – in a similar way to how he controlled Herbie’s mind, even to the point that if scientist relinquishes control Isaac dies because he is incapable of functioning.

D. Jay-5
Artificially intelligent robot whose actions and thoughts appear very human – much like the droids in Star Wars (e.g., R2D2) or the androids in Star Trek (e.g., Data). However, all of their synthetic thoughts and actions are the result of very clever programming.

E. Karen5
She is a character in a story. Her every personality characteristic has been made by her creator, a writer. Karen is “shown” in the pages in a book to a reader, appearing as an idea in the reader’s mind. All thoughts, beliefs, judgments, and understandings Karen has are lines from a script provided by the writer (interpreted by the reader).

I have listed this example for fun. I entertained this idea in many forms as a child. I suppose I still do.

In the fifth meditation, Descartes asserts that I have free will. I assume that Descartes would say that if one thinks, THEN one has free will, and vice versa. Here is my version of Descartes argument, resulting from a combination of meditations two and five.

I think I have free will
I think ⊃ I have a soul/mind
I have a soul/mind I exist
I think
∴ I exist

If my mind is being controlled right now, by a mad scientist, I would not consider myself thinking. Even though I am writing this paper, it could all be a product of the mad scientist’s musings. I would consider all the thoughts that I am having right now synthetic6.

I find it perfectly plausible that my thoughts could be controlled without my knowing – that it is possible to imagine that someone could control my thoughts and that there would be no way for me to ever find out. Especially since, a mad scientist would most likely not want to lose control of me.

When I first came up with the cases I listed on the last page, my intention was to come up with different scenarios to show that Gertie was the only one who was truly thinking, she is “master of her own thoughts”, and the that the rest of the individuals, in some form or another, were not. These other individuals are not thinking, and are not able to conceive that they are not able to think.

I recognized that someone else reading this, may ask if the only differences among the five cases is that Gertie had free willnecessarily imply free will and vice versa, but failed. In so, this is why I believe Descartes takes it for granted that I have free will – because he believes he has proven that I think8.

6 synthetic [sin-thet-ik] -adjective, not real or genuine; artificial; feigned. I provide this definition so as to not confuse it with one of its other definitions that would make it a product of synthesis: a complex whole formed by combining.
7 In that Gertie has Descartes’ definition of – the simple freedom of choice. She is able to choose what likes to eat, what movie she wants to see, etc. I am avoiding any discussion that would hint at the much grander war between free will and determinism.
8 I am leaving animals out of this. Descartes would probably assume that animals do not think, and has not given much thought as to whether they exhibit free will. Most, in that simple sense (see footnote 6) would like – like cats and dogs. For my purposes, I will say that those types of animals have a “lesser kind of thinking”. I have given consideration to other life forms, such as amoeba and euglena. These examples most likely do not think since they appear to operate on an instinctual level – they eat everything they are able to, and wander aimlessly in the same way that water always “tries” to reach sea level from a mountain top.

Gertie has no way of knowing that she is not in the same position as Herb or Isaac – just as Herbie and Isaac do not know the severity of their situations. There is no “self-test” available9. Isaac and Herb, in their “controlled state” are no different than Jay-510. Their I’s11 do not exist.

It seems difficult comprehend that there is not an I at all. For it appears that there is an I to be controlled – even potential for release, as in Herb’s situation. Though, for Isaac, his I was, and never truly will be free. His I synthetically believes that he (it?) is free. He does not think, and exists in the same way that a clock or a table would exist.

In so, it could be said since that it is IMPOSSIBLE to know whether my thoughts are not synthetic, THEN it is IMPOSSIBLE to know if I have free will. Perhaps, it is even difficult to conclude that I exist at all, such as in Karen’s situation. I will not go that far, it is just now difficult for me to define what I is anymore.

I think ≡ I have free will
I think ⊃ I have a soul/mind
I have a soul/mind ⊃ I exist
(I exist.)

Now, I do not even have the comfort that that my thoughts are my own, even if it seems indubitable that I, technically, exist12.

9 Technically, if the mad scientist was “found out” in some way, measures could be taken to rescue his subjects. However, in this scenario, the mad scientist either has control over the entire population and/or he has an undetectable method of control.
10 Depending on his programmer, Jay-5 may be “aware” that he is a robot.
11 I do not mean for this to sound like an Ayn Rand essay.
12 I suppose I have comfort that at least I’m happy?


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