Written by Harrison Ho

With the advent of radio, television, and now the internet, people can share and spread information with ease. This ease leads to the sharing of enormous quantities of junk. Thus, along with the freedom to share and discuss comes the burden of validating each idea and freely choosing for oneself how one should interpret and act in the world. René Descartes, who lived from 1596 to 1650, faced not the deluge of information from the web but the deluge of information from his teachers and the Church. Descartes, displeased with his intellectual life as a student and member of the academy, seeks a new beginning for his thought: “I resolved one day to study within myself too and to spend all the powers of my mind in choosing the paths that I should follow” (6). So begins Descartes’ Discourse on the Method for Conducting One’s Reason Well and for Seeking Truth in the Sciences, and the philosopher proceeds to outline how he derives the reasonings for the world from a few assumptions and maxims. Some say that Descartes achieves pure thought in his pursuit, and that he chooses to act based only on his own motivations. Yet, even though this endeavour is his own, his knowledge is conditioned by the past and competing factors beyond himself. Thus, one may pose a question: to what extent does Descartes’ Discourse indicate the existence or the non-existence of freedom of thought?

His primary purpose is to escape doctrine and come up with truths of the world on his own. The constant influence of other people, in his opinion, leads to imperfection and failure. As an example, Descartes describes the result when many people over many years expand a village without coordinating their efforts:

Thus those ancient cities that were once mere villages and in the course of time have become large towns are usually so poorly laid out, compared to those well-ordered places that an engineer traces out on a vacant plain as it suits his fancy, … one would say that it is chance rather than the will of some men using reason that has arranged them thus. (7)

Just as these “ancient cities” grow and become unwieldy, so do the ideas of society become labyrinthine and incomprehensible to the rational mind. While the ideas of society may begin as simple concepts, like the “mere villages,” the ideas lose this simplicity as they resemble the “poorly laid out” “large towns.” Men may construct the individual buildings, but chance develops the city. Descartes contrasts these towns with the “well-ordered places” that are designed by a single engineer. He suggests that “will” and “reason” alone are enough to supply a “vacant plain” to have “more attractive and better ordered” (7) buildings. His approach to this problem is therefore to return to this “vacant plain” and this foundation, and he tries to “[build] upon a foundation which is completely [his] own” (9). In doing so, Descartes attempts to be the engineer of the “vacant plain” of his own mind. Displeased with the storm of chance and a great diversity of opinions and ideas, Descartes hopes to proceed with “will” and “reason”, as if these two will allow him to rebuild and develop a rational epistemology all his own.

In this way, is it possible for Descartes to express free thought? As free thought is the capacity to make a choice away from outside influence, some argue that Descartes has succeeded in doing so: he has chosen to do away with concepts and notions and to start over. Moreover, by eliminating outside influence, Descartes attempts to ensure that his own mind is pushing him to knowledge and not the thoughts of others. To achieve this, Descartes doubts everything around him:

I thought it necessary… that I reject as absolutely false everything in which I could imagine the least doubt, in order to see whether, after this process, something in my beliefs remained that was entirely indubitable (18).

To be free from preconceived notions and inherited ideas, he must start with himself and the only sure proposition he can make: “I think, therefore I am” (18). With this, Descartes tries to assert his freedom of thought. Only his reasoning and his thinking allow him to separate himself from everything that is dubitable and everything that can influence him. Descartes aims to seek out only his beliefs and to extend from his basic axioms, such as the existence of self, to everything that can be proved in the world.

However, despite his determination to think independently, absolute freedom of thought is an illusion, and factors beyond his control will inevitably influence him. Descartes reveals his own imperfections when he compares himself with God, and he “[sees] that doubt, inconstancy, sadness, and the like could not be in God, since I myself would have been happy to be exempt from them” (20). He can never escape his humanity, as a feature of being human is enslavement to a dependency upon the material world. As a result, Descartes will always be affected by these traits, both consciously and subconsciously. In addition, the difference between the perfection of God and the imperfection of his subjects leads to a reliance of humans on God or some other deity. Alone, humans are unguided and easily misled, and Descartes’ discussion on reliance suggests that humans must rely to some degree on faith in a higher being.  Descartes writes that “dependence is manifestly a defect” (20); imperfection leads to unintentional reliance on factors beyond our control, contradicting the idea of absolute freedom.

Furthermore, despite attempting to become self-reliant, Descartes must rely on society. Even as he tries to seek out ideas that are purely his own, he cannot isolate himself from people. While he tries to “[build] upon a foundation which is completely [his] own” (9), this foundation must come from something. Indeed, he professes in his maxims that certain outside influences result in indestructible connections with society. His first maxim is to “obey the laws and the customs of [his] country, constantly holding on to the religion in which, by God’s grace, [he] had been instructed from [his] childhood” (13). While Descartes can eliminate some assumptions and ideas that he has accumulated over the years, he can never separate himself from his identity and his origins in Europe and the Christian tradition. Thus, his thoughts will always be driven by something in this foundation. Similarly, his second maxim is “to follow the most doubtful opinions, once [he] had decided on them, with no less constancy than if they had been very well assured” (14). Descartes willingly gives up some of his actions to chance, which some might say is an irrational decision. He acknowledges that he should stay firm on one path and to imitate travellers that walk in a straight line “even if at the outset it had perhaps been only chance that made them choose it” (14). Just as the “large towns” that were constructed from the “mere villages” seem to result from chance, Descartes concedes some of his own development to randomness as well. Finally, his third maxim is “to try to conquer [himself] rather than fortune, and to change [his] desires rather than the order of the world, and generally to accustom [himself] to believing that there is nothing that is completely within our power except our thoughts” (14-15). Because the world cannot drastically change, Descartes must adapt himself. While Descartes does claim that thought is within his power, he has to struggle for control of this power, and it is a struggle he admittedly cannot win. Descartes can never return to a foundation that is purely himself, as it will always have an element of his past, luck, and his surroundings.

Paul Bloom, in his essay Free Will Does Not Exist, So What?, claims that “we are mindless robots, influenced by unconscious motivations from within and subtle environmental cues from without.” While it is true that we are always influenced by environment, it is also true that thinking exists, even if it is a result of factors out of our control. Thus, while Descartes does not show that absolute freedom of thought exists, he does demonstrate the ability to think independently and carefully. Notably, while discussing chance regarding the expansion of villages into large towns, Descartes connects the transformation from a vacant plain to a “well-ordered place” to the will of some men, as opposed to the will of one man. Descartes suggests that an engineer cannot work alone. As opposed to one single person creating this “well-ordered place,” a person equipped with the tools of his predecessors can bring this city into fruition. Often, the ideas needed in engineering are so complex that independently coming up with engineering fundamentals can be an arduous and error-riddled process. Instead, an engineer must use the optimized equations and hardware developed by his predecessors to become successful. Even though the engineer is not working alone, as in Descartes’ ideal vision of a construction project, he can still coordinate his efforts carefully to make sense of the past, unlike the architects who expand recklessly, seemingly by “chance.”

In addition, Descartes advocates flexibility of the mind and working with, rather than against, its imperfections. He compares the process of obtaining knowledge to traversing a mountain:

The great roads that wind through mountains little by little become so smooth and so convenient by dint of being frequently used, that it is much better to follow them than to try to take a more direct route by climbing over rocks and descending to the bottom of precipices (8).

Descartes acknowledges that he must live with imperfections, as the “great roads” may be less efficient than the “direct route” if the latter were constructed. Still, the convenience of the “great roads” can trump the directness of the rocky path, and a winding road may even reveal details of the mountain that are hidden from the direct route. Descartes also suggests that there is not one perfect way to achieve knowledge, as every person has different methods and predispositions. The “great roads” that have been smoothened after years of usage may be better suited to those who lack the strength to cross the precipices, while taking the “direct route” may benefit the person who seeks the challenge of doing so. Analogously, an engineer who needs to construct a building does not need to know why gravity exists and only needs to use the gravitational force in his calculations. In contrast, a physicist will actively study the theory of gravity to shed light on the workings of the universe. Descartes mentions that his Discourse on Method may not be suitable for other readers and that he develops his method for himself:

“My plan has never gone beyond trying to reform my own thoughts and building upon a foun- dation which is completely my own. And if, my work having pleased me sufficiently, I here show you a model of it, it is not for the reason that I would wish to advise anyone to imitate it” (9).

Everyone has his/her own foundation of material and thus a different thought process; an idea or thought process that one person champions may oppose the ideas that another person supports. In fact, it is advantageous for society to have contrasting opinions and mental processes. People having individual opinions about topics can argue and discuss them, exposing themselves to foreign ideas and expanding their knowledge and understanding. This can support free thought as people gain a broader world view while simultaneously clarifying their own ideas. Regardless of the imperfections of the human mind, this faculty of thinking lets people pursue knowledge in the way that best suits them.

In conclusion, Descartes’ Discourse on Method shows how even though humans are incapable of absolute freedom of thought, people still have a measure of freedom to think independently. We can obtain a clear understanding of the world, even if our environments my lead us astray. Taking a phenomenological approach, one might say that sensory experiences lead to thought. The development of the human brain gives us the capabilities to think and judge, and the environment works towards free thinking and not against it. Regardless of how thought comes about, it surely exists: it is up to people to use their minds and face the flood of information of the world.

Works Cited

Descartes, René. Discourse on Method And Meditations on First Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1998. Print.