By Jaimie Xie


An illustration of the dualism of mind and body, by René Descartes (from “Treatise of Man”)  Source: wikipedia

It seems that a mixture of nature and nurture can explain all of our habits and behavior, and many take this as evidence that none of our choices are truly ours. However, as Hilary Bok, a professor at Johns Hopkins, puts it, “the claim that a person chose her action does not conflict with the claim that some neural processes or states caused it; it simply redescribes it.” Regardless of what science is “behind” our choices, we cannot ignore the fact that we have decisions to make. Whether there are neural or supernatural processes that make up the mind, we have been endowed with the freedom to think. Though we are tempted to blame our body and other external factors for our mistakes, we cannot escape the responsibility that we have for our choices and decisions. The duality of body and mind infers that though we cannot control the former, we must be accountable for the latter.

Since genetics are the blueprints for our body, we are quick to blame our genes for our actions. However, in reality, genetics do little to influence our behaviors and habits. After all, we often see identical twins with polar opposite personalities. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Guido da Montefeltro and his son Buonconte provide key examples of how men of the same blood can lead their lives onto different paths. While Guido is left to rot in the 8th circle of the Inferno, Buonconte has been saved. Even in the afterlife, these two men view their terrestrial lives quite differently. Unlike Buonconte, Guido refuses to accept blame for his fate by attempting to objectify his mind as part of his body. He explains, “While I was the form of bone and flesh that my/mother gave me, my works were not those of a lion/but of a fox” (Alighieri 27.73-5). By “form,” he is referring to his soul, and thus claiming that it is inextricably bound to his “bone and flesh.” Guido evades responsibility by portraying his own mother as the acting agent who “gave” him not only his body, but also his mind. He further connects his fraudulent tendencies with his body by presenting his “works” as a product of his life on Earth; he is implying that he no longer has those tendencies as a body-less being in Hell, though his attitude indicates otherwise. As he exclaims, “ah,/miserable wretch that I am! and it would have worked.” (Alighieri 27.83-4), Guido reveals that his retrospective outlook is analogous to his “works” while he was alive. He emulates humility by referring to himself as a “miserable wretch,” but discloses his dishonest intentions with his second exclamation. Guido’s emphasis on the material rather than the spiritual elements of his life indicates his ignorance on what it means to have a true conversion. He describes himself as a Franciscan, “so girt” (Alighieri 27.68), believing that all it takes to live piously is to dress the part. Ultimately, Guido believed that his damnation was the fault of his costume, though in reality, it was his own decision to wear it that led to his fate.

In a purely physical vantage point, Buonconte was very much like his father. The Montefeltros were infamous on the battlefield. As leaders of the Ghibellines, they both reveled in the glory of violent victories against the Guelfs. However, unlike Guido, Buonconte recognizes that the mind is the curator of the true intentions that motivate actions. Before telling Dante the circumstances of his death, he asks that Dante relay his story to those who are still living so that they can pray for him. In doing so, Buonconte seeks an action that can only be performed by the mind, so he indirectly relies on the freedom of the minds of others. On the other hand, Guido denies any good the living bodies can do for him by stating, “If I believed that my reply were to a person who/would ever return to the world, this flame would/remain without further shaking” (Alighieri 27.61-3). The dramatic irony of his request further mocks the father’s ignorance, as opposed to Buonconte’s earnest wish.

Though genetics are a primary concern for the contemporary audience, Dante and his readers of the 14th century weren’t even aware there was such a thing. At the time, many believed a different force controlled our environment and our choices: supernatural forces. However, Buonconte’s ultimate fate argues that while these forces can control the body and the environment, they cannot control the mind. At the moment of his death, Buonconte’s last minute prayers defy even the expectations of Heaven and Hell. When God’s angel takes up his soul, the Devil proclaims, “O you from Heaven, why do you rob me?” (Alighieri 5.103). Since Buonconte led a violent life, pursuing glory on the battlefield, the Devil believed that he would receive his soul after his death. Seeing this final exchange as an injustice, the Devil indignantly seeks vengeance by threatening, “For a little tear he’s taken from me,/but with the remains I’ll deal in my own way” (Alighieri 5.107-8). In an effort to regain his dignity after being beat by a mere mortal, the Devil destroys and hides Buonconte’s body, and even succeeds in undoing the cross at his chest. However, regardless of how symbolically significant this may appear, he is still unable to touch the warrior’s soul. Since Buonconte willed himself out of Hell, no external being can force him back in.

Though our will is clearly superior to that of the Devil, as evidenced by Buonconte’s salvation, many still believe that God’s will is an obstacle to our own freedom. According to the Genesis, God is the creator of the first man, Adam. First, He constructed his physical body out of dust. Then, he breathed in the metaphysical part of man—his soul—and this is what distinguishes man from the rest of God’s creations. It seems reasonable to assume that since God created man’s mind, he must be able to control it, too. However, if this were true, then we can’t explain the Fall of Man in the book of Genesis. When Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, did God intentionally instill sin in men and women? Since God is a perfect being, he can’t possibly be responsible for willing sin. This logic applies for all of Adam and Eve’s progeny on a much broader level. Most of the ideas that we formulate in our minds, even if not sinful, are not perfect. As Descartes writes in his Discourse on Method, “I was assured that none of [the ideas] that indicated any imperfection were in God,” and that “the ideas of these things were truly in my thought” (Descartes 20). Therefore, the imperfect thoughts that make up our minds cannot be the products of God.

Throughout his Discourse, Descartes discloses his first principle of philosophy on the “thinking being” by his aphorism, I think, therefore I am. He claims that as long as we are thinking of anything, whether in certitude or doubt, we are existing beings. He goes further to say, “this ‘I,’ that is to say, the soul through which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body…and even if there were no body at all, it would not cease to be all that it is” (Descartes 19). This “I;” this “soul;” this “being;” are all synonymous to our consciousness: our ability to recognize ourselves as thinking. Contrary to what many people are quick to believe, consciousness is not simply the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror. In fact, according to Descartes, we could be conscious even if we didn’t have a body. Instead of with a physical mirror, consciousness can be better understood as the ability to see ourselves with a metaphorical mirror—that is, consciousness is the ability to reflect on our thoughts and actions through the faculty of our mind. Though both Guido and Buonconte are able to see themselves in this perspective, Guido’s mirror has been curved to reflect a convoluted image; it is only reasonable that his retrospective attitude also be reflective of his fraudulent nature.

As men and women, we have a consciousness that is separate from our body. However, Professor Jerry A. Coyne contests the existence of a distinct mind by comparing our choices to “the output of a programmed computer,” claiming that our experiences and genes have conditioned us to make a specific choice at any given point of our lives. However, the validity of this analogy is challenged by the simple fact that even the most complex computer will never reach the capacity of self-reflection. Our ability to differentiate between our internal self and the external world gives us a perspective that allows for free will. Our senses help us decipher this external world, and our faculty of judgment allows us to interpret and act upon our observations. At the moment of his death, Buonconte recalls, “There I lost sight and speech. I ended on the name of Mary.” Here, the schism between the mind and the body is emphasized; even as Buonconte physically leaves the Earth, he still manages to alter his fate by praying. If we refer back to Coyne’s analogy, this would be as if a computer could still function after it has been shut down.

In the technological revolution of the 21st century, it can be tempting to try to explain all of human nature with numbers and atoms. However, by doing so, we are just avoiding the responsibility of having our own freedom. Given any scenario, we will always have a decision to make. As leading genomic scientist Richard Dawkins says,

we behave as if we are not deterministic, and we feel as if we are not deterministic — and that’s all that matters.

The emphasis is that we feel like we have free will, which is a phenomenon that results from our consciousness. The question of free will does not concern the sphere of neuroscience, and looking into the sciences will only yield fruitless results. We were born with the capacity to reason and a sense of self-autonomy, and now we are using those very faculties to argue their own existence. It’s time to assume responsibility for our freedom, our actions, and our role as human beings.

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante, Jean Hollander, and Robert Hollander. Purgatorio. New York: Anchor, 2003. Print.

Bok, Hilary. “Want to Understand Free Will? Don’t Look to Neuroscience.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle Review, 18 Mar. 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Coyne, Jerry A. “You Don’t Have Free Will.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle Review, 18 Mar. 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Descartes, René, Donald A. Cress, and René Descartes. Discourse on Method ; And, Meditations on First Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1998. Print.

Durling, Robert, Ronald Martinez, and Robert Turner. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, 1. Oxford: Oxford UP, USA, 2010. Print.

“Richard Dawkins.” Interview. Faith and Reason. PBS. N.d. Television. Transcript.