Do we possess free will? According to the modern philosophy of determinism, we do not. Materialist determinism states that because the body exists in the physical world, it is bound by the physical laws of nature. Therefore, all thoughts and actions of the individual are actually chemical processes of the brain that can be predicted with a sufficiently deep understanding of the natural laws and powerful computational techniques. Just as physicists can predict the outcome of collisions of billiard balls on a pool table, science can explain more complex models like human interaction. Determinism disproves the notion of freewill of the body because humans are simply reacting to inputs of data according to chemical processes in the brain. However, determinists overlook an essential problem before answering such an abstract and metaphysical question: “What is the Self?” According to a rival philosophy of dualism, the mind exists in a separate realm from the body, and therefore would not necessarily have to follow natural laws. Dualism requires a more nuanced approach than scientific proof allows. Therefore, the arguments that will prove this distinction between separate mind and body are human experiences exemplifying the mind transcending the body. In this paper, I will explore classical and modern philosophers’ explanations of the soul in order to challenge radical Determinism philosophy and use the soul as an argument for the existence of free will.
Many classical philosophers separate the mind and body in order to approach religion and morality as issues that transcend the material world. In Descartes’ reflection in the Discourse on Method¸ he comes to the realization that the mind is separate from the body. In his proof of God, Descartes resolves to abandon all sensory inputs because he cannot rely on them to arrive at the truth because, judging solely from sensory inputs, he is unable to discern dreams from reality. Instead, he turns to reason and doubt as the only possible avenue to truth. In the process of doubting everything, Descartes realizes that he is the one doubting, and therefore he must exist leading to the famous phrase “I think, therefore I am.” Using his mind, Descartes is able to imagine himself separate from natural laws (without a body, without a location), but he is unable to imagine himself without existence. Descartes thus illustrates that the mind and body are separate, and perhaps most importantly, he locates the self within the mind. Descartes proves that mind and body are separate, and perhaps more importantly he locates the self within the mind. Thus, he proposes that the mind is constrained by the natural laws and man has the potential to for free will.
The “immortal soul” theory of dualism is prevalent in other classical philosophies and religions involving the afterlife, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante’s illustration of free will through the soul can be compared with Descartes’ illustration of free will through the mind. The passing of souls into Paradiso, Purgatorio and Inferno is Dante’s argument that morality and God transcend the material world, and so can the human soul. In the Inferno, the tortured souls live on forever in the circles of hell and no longer are bound by a body or by the natural laws. Thus, the theory of dualism counters the material philosophy of determinism by suggesting that the mind or soul is not subject to the same natural laws as the body or the physical brain. Dante illustrates dualism by literally separating the body and soul at death when the souls move on to the afterlife. Dante’s investigation transcends the literal separation through an analysis of Guido’s rationale for his sin. In Dante’s Inferno, the body can be constrained by impulse but the mind is ultimately responsible. Guido de Montefeltro was aware of his sin but still, racked with fear, he chose to give advice that would cost lives. He is driven by fear, and, because fear corrupts the soul rather than his body, his soul goes to hell. If the soul is held responsible for the body’s actions, then forcibly the soul had chosen the path of damnation. The philosophical proof of Dante does not follow the same reasoned approach as Descartes, but ultimately represents the same thing: the separate existence of a mind/soul from the body and this entity defines man’s Self by exercising free will.
Dante also presents a more optimistic example of humanity’s free will through Buonconte in Purgatory. In his final moments after being mortally wounded, Buonconte recites an “Ave Maria” prayer. This is an example of mind transcendence of the sensory of the body. Even in the most painful and dark moment, the soul was able to separate itself and rise above the material body. Moments before his death, Buonconte realizes that true salvation comes from a prayer rather than protecting his body. In this case, a prayer is the embodiment of the soul, proving simultaneously that the mind and body are separate and that the soul has precedence over the body. After the second word of Buonconte’s prayer, “only [his] flesh remained,” suggesting that the soul had been separated from the body and that although the body has died, the soul lives on. Dante demonstrates the mechanics of dualism philosophy through human experiences rather than logical arguments.
Philosophical dualism is still prevalent in modern times. In Herman Hesse’s modern novel Siddhartha, Siddhartha leaves on a quest to attain nirvana. The existence that transcends the body that is the mind to Descartes and the soul to Dante, is the “Self” by Hesse. Siddhartha journeys through different paths to enlightenment, each one promising an exploration of the Self. At the end of his journey, Siddhartha becomes at peace because he accepts his Self, as well as the understanding of the Buddha. However, for the purpose of this argument, I will focus on his acceptance of the Self. The journey for enlightenment leads Siddhartha through many religions and philosophies. The first of which, the Samana, teach Siddhartha to deny himself of the senses to find enlightenment. In this respect, the Samana teach a similar method as Descartes. By the end of their teachings, Siddhartha was able to transcend bodily needs, he could fast for months, ignore pain, slow his heartbeat. Siddhartha takes the example of a separate mind and body to the extreme and ultimately learns to exit his body and live in the body of animals. Eventually, Siddhartha leaves the Samana to find his own path to nirvana. He finds the Buddha, who has already attained enlightenment, and is further convinced of the importance of finding nirvana himself. Siddhartha’s journey through philosophies in order to attain a blessed state is an example of the existence of the individual’s mind and soul. Siddhartha’s ultimate realization is that even separate objects and separate times are connected. Because physical connections between past, present, and separate objects do not literally exist in this reality, Hesse implies that there exists a deeper, spiritual realm; one to which the mind and soul could transcend and escape deterministic laws.
The philosophies of dualism and determinism disagree with respect to the independence of the soul. However, does dualism necessarily prove free will? If the mind is not bound by physical laws does it follow other laws or does it possess free will? According to Descartes, man’s mind differentiates him from animals in that he is able to think separately from his body. The mind or soul that Descartes refers to exists in a different realm beyond nature and therefore would possess the potential to possess free will. When Descartes mentions that man has become the “master and possessors of nature” he has a double meaning. Literally, he refers to the crafts etc. that allow man to triumph over animals and extreme weather conditions, but also to man’s mind that separates him from animals and allows him to overcome animal nature by possessing free will. Together, these philosophers explore the possibility of an experience beyond sensory perception wherein the mind can transcend physical reality in order to consider itself.
Dante, Alighieri. Inferno. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003. Print.
Dante, Alighieri, Robert Hollander, and Jean Hollander. Purgatorio. New York: Anchor, 2000. Print.
Descartes, René. A Discourse on Method. N.p.: Hackett, 1998. Print.
Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha. N.p.: Courier Dover Publications, 1998. Print.