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Free Will

Spinoza & Other Determinists

Myint Zan compares different ways of denying free will.

The following sentences appear in a letter written by the great Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677):

“Further conceive, I beg, that a stone while continuing in motion should be capable of thinking and knowing, that is endeavouring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of his own endeavour and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and it would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined”
(Letter to G.H. Schaller, October 1674).

These three sentences in Spinoza’s letter determine (pun intended) that he was a philosophical determinist. Without distorting Spinoza’s message, we could rephrase it this way: “If a stone in motion were to have human-level consciousness, then the stone, like some humans, including philosophers, would think that it is moving out of its own volition and free will, although it isn’t.”

If one fastforwards from the late seventeenth century to the late twentieth century, in a lecture in March 1990 the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking also expressed an opinion about free will (see Chapter 13: ‘Is Everything Determined?’ in his 1993 book Black Holes & Baby Universes). Hawking argued that the concept of diminished responsibility in British criminal law should be abolished. Under this legal concept a few defendants’ criminal culpability, and hence their punishments, can be reduced, in certain exceptional circumstances. Even more rarely, they might be held legally ‘not guilty’ if the law or the Courts assume that these defendants do not have adequate comprehension of, or control over, their actions. The concept of diminished responsibility can also be seen in the rare cases where criminal defendants are found ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’.

The thrust of the thinking behind Hawking’s proposal to abolish this legal concept of diminished responsibility is that since all the actions of all human beings are determined (that is, predetermined), why give special preference to those criminal defendants having the defence of ‘diminished responsibility’? Hawking seems to be saying, “Don’t accept only a few criminal defendants’ claims that ‘We could not have helped ourselves’, because other criminals, indeed all human beings, cannot help themselves in all their actions, either.” However, in Great Britain the doctrine of diminished responsibility has not been abolished; nor, as far as this writer is aware, has the doctrine been abolished in former British colonies, from Australia through India and Malaysia to Zimbabwe.

I’d ask, if Spinoza were to come back, would he agree with Hawking’s version of philosophical determinism? Further, after studying modern criminal law and criminology, would he agree with Hawking’s suggestion that the legal doctrine of diminished responsibility be abolished? I venture to suggest that there may be shades of differences between Spinoza’s and Hawking’s deterministic philosophies, but they’re not that far apart. Both hold that free will is an illusion. On the other hand, Spinoza’s and Hawking’s metaphysical determinism is very different from and incompatible with the metaphysics of Augustine and Calvin.

Baruch Spinoza, possibly?
This portrait discovered in a Paris art sale in 2013 is believed by some to be Spinoza. It is dated 1666 and attributed to the Dutch painter Barend Graat. If so, it is the only portrait painted of Spinoza during his lifetime.

Calvinistic vs Augustinian Predestination

John Calvin (1509-1564) was a seminal French/Swiss theologian of the Protestant persuasion. One of Calvin’s theological doctrines was his concept of ‘predestination’. In short, only those who believe in Christ can be saved, but the Christian creator deity has, in his discretion, chosen in advance who to save by leading or allowing them to believe in Christ. From my understanding of this, Calvin seems to have meant that whether or not a person believes in God was pre-determined by that God. Hence for example, if the atheist Richard Dawkins has chosen not to believe in God, and indeed to be critical of the idea or ‘construct’ of God, that non-belief of Dawkins (and one would add, of millions of others worldwide) was also pre-determined by the deity himself. This is a very specific type or application of the denial of free will.

A comparable (though not necessarily similar) special pleading can be seen in varying degrees in other dogmas and ideologies, some of whose tenets may otherwise be opposed to Calvin’s ideology. Non-belief in God was the will of God himself according to Calvin. In a different-but-not-that-different assertion, Marxists might assert that inbuilt ‘class biases’ lead people to oppose Marxism. A few Freudians might also state that those who disagree with Freud and his theories are showing psychological ‘resistance’. And a few radical feminists’ catch phrase is that many people, including many females, most liberal and cultural feminists, and almost all males, institutions, religions, political ideologies and philosophies, are dominated by, or suffused with ‘male constructs’ they themselves had no part in constructing or deliberating upon.

Neither Calvin nor Spinoza were privy to these philosophies, which emerged a few centuries after their deaths; but indeed, Spinoza’s concept of Deus sive Natura (‘God, or Nature’) was itself a radical departure from the Abrahamic concept of the personal deity – so much so that Spinoza’s Amsterdam synagogue expelled and anathematised him for his unorthodox philosophy.

Spinoza’s God, and his ‘intellectual love of God’, is not related to Calvin’s predestinationism. Though both Spinoza and Hawking were philosophical determinists, the identity of the ‘determiner’, so to speak, was not Calvin’s deity – nor the deity of the Catholic theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430), either.

Augustine preceded Calvin and Spinoza by about 1,200 years and 1,300 years respectively. In one of his essays in the book The Night is Large (1996), Martin Gardner claimed that according to Augustine, ‘’God stands above time and sees the past, the present and the future.” From my recall of what I read in Augustine’s Confessions (397), there were passages to that effect, whereby every instant is like an eternal present to God. But to one such as me, outside of the theological traditions of both Calvin and Augustine, this query comes to mind: Does God have the power to change the future, the present, or even the past? Superimposing Calvinist theology over the Augustinian, a further query is: Can and does God change his mind (so to speak), and ‘reverse’ his choice as to whom he confers salvation, and who (let’s not mince words now) he condemns to damnation?

Spinoza almost certainly would have been familiar with aspects of Augustinian and Calvinist theology, even if in the four books about Spinoza by four different authors this writer has read, he does not recall reading specifically about Calvinist and Augustinian philosophies. Yet when Spinoza died there were about 160 books in his library. Were there, in that library, the Latin originals of Augustine’s Confessions ; the works of Calvin; and Latin, or Dutch, or Portuguese, translations of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations ? It is said that Marcus ordered that his diary, which later become Meditations, be destroyed. If that was so we should be grateful that his subjects did not abide by their Emperor’s orders. In contrast, the ‘gentle’ Spinoza must have had an eye on posterity, perhaps even (perish the thought!) posthumous fame and recognition, when he took the trouble of hand copying his correspondence, expressing not even a hint of a wish that it be destroyed after his death.

There are many shades of differences between the theologies of Augustine and Calvin, since the former was a Catholic theologian and the latter a Protestant one. As a philosophical determinist, Spinoza did not accept free will. Apparently, though, one traditional shared response of Christians to the existence of evil is based on the concept of free will. But in this writer’s opinion, free will is somewhat anomalous or problematic in light of the concepts both of Calvinistic predestination and Augustinian divine foreknowledge. If human life is fixed by God, how can free will operate?

Makkhali Gosala’s Amoral Fatalism

The ancient Indian philosopher Makkhali Gosala, who died around 425 BCE, preceded Augustine by about 800 years, Calvin by about 2,000 years, and Spinoza by about 2,100 years. One notable aspect of Gosala’s philosophy is his fatalism.

According to scholars, Gosala’s views are mainly known through statements made in the texts of a couple of religions dominant in his times, Buddhism and Jainism. Apparently both the Buddhists and Jains of Gosala’s time considered him, if not a deviant, then at least entirely outside their traditions.

Gosala seems to have espoused the view that human beings are preordained to suffer. He discoursed about the futility of human effort, and denied the consequences of good or bad deeds. Gosala even denied the operation of karma, which idea was already long-established in Indian philosophy and theology. Karma can generally be defined as consequences in both present and future lives of present volitional actions and those volitional actions from past lives. Variations on the idea can be found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. A few Buddhist texts indicate that the Buddha himself condemned Gosala’s views as the ‘meanest’ or ‘most low-based of the doctrines among the many preachers of many sects’ of ancient India, more than 2,500 years ago.

The denial of the consequences of volitional action can be designated as ‘fatalism’ in both ancient Indian and contemporary contexts. His isn’t the predestinationism of Calvin, which is based on the Creator’s will, nor is it ‘predestination’ in the Augustinian sense of God already knowing what will happen. To the extent that this writer can discern, Gosala did not say that fatalism emanated from the will of the Creator. Ostensibly, the fatalism is just there.

Spinoza denied free will, but he was not a fatalist in the mould of Gosala, nor an espouser of predestination like Augustine or Calvin. Unlike them, Spinoza did not attribute his determinism to God, but rather, because everything that happens takes place through natural laws. And while Makkhali Gosala, because of his fatalism, did not enjoin moral efforts, this is not the case in the moral philosophy of the determinist Spinoza. Indeed, many philosophers and other admirers of Spinoza throughout the world are of the view that he was one of history’s most moral philosophers. This to me is only an apparent paradox in the deterministic philosophy of Spinoza.

© Dr Myint Zan 2023

Myint Zan is a retired Professor of Law from Multimedia University in Malacca, Malaysia. He established in perpetuity the Myint Zan Prize in Philosophy of Science for undergraduate students at the Australian National University. The inaugural Myint Zan Law and Philosophy Lecture at ANU was delivered by Judge Hilary Charlesworth of the International Court of Justice in August 2023.

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