a tippling philosopher

The Argument from Format – How the Cartesian soul cannot be the originator of free will.

 By Jonathan M.S Pearce, Sep 2011


Abstract: This essay sets out to dispel the myth that the soul can be the originator for free will. I will start the essay by establishing the Cartesian idea of what the body is and showing that Descartes and modern biology indicate that the body is a biological machine. After indicating how Descartes (and others) use the soul as the originator for free will / volition, I will show that in order for the soul to be labelled and identified as a soul, it must have the format and properties of a soul. These must be adhered to in order to designate the soul with coherent and consistent properties. To conclude, I will maintain that if a soul must adhere to rules and laws to remain being a soul, then it must operate within a deterministic framework.



René Descartes (1596-1650) had profound effects on modern philosophy, so much so that he is often labelled the ‘Father of Modern Philosophy’. This is no more evident than with his ruminations over the mind and the body as he sought to differentiate the two, seeking to prove their separate identity and philosophy.

Descartes established his dualism in his works Passions of the Soul and The Description of the Human Body amongst others. In these works, he proposed that the human body, in its physicality, juxtaposes the nonmaterial existence of the soul. The two entities come together in the pineal gland, in the brain, where they interact[1]. Thus Descartes posited a mind-body dualism which still pervades today and provides a hotbed for philosophical debate. Though his knowledge of physiology, whilst being pioneering for the time, is now outdated and surpassed by the amassed knowledge within modern medicine, much of the core philosophy is still relevant and worthy.

Let us look briefly at what Descartes saw as the body before looking at his ideas about the soul. Firstly, though, it might be a good idea to look at how Descartes separated the two.

It is important to note that Descartes, in his rationalist approach to finding out what we can know indubitably, came by his cogito ergo sum (I think; therefore, I am) by positing that everything of the body (the senses and its very existence) can be doubted. I agree with the general premise here that everything could logically be doubted but that it does presuppose that the mind can exist without the brain or body. While it is very useful for strictly epistemological[2] reasons, it is less so for proving dualism (the separation of mind and body) as we shall see.

The body could, even, be the product of an evil genius / demon (as Descartes proposed in his 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy), fooling the ‘I’ (whatever that may be) in the style of the Matrix films. In order to doubt our own bodies, we must have a mind (whatever that may be!). Thus Descartes, in searching out an epistemological theory on reality, came to see a fundamental, philosophical difference between mind and body. Though this does not necessarily prove that they are separate, since a mind may still necessitate a body to function or exist, it formed (for Descartes at least) an intuitive belief that the mind and body are separate, which then he attempted to substantiate with proofs. However, merely being able to doubt the existence of things does not necessitate that these things are thereby false. The fact that I can doubt that I am sitting here typing at my laptop as a result of an evil demon playing tricks on me does not mean that this is the most plausible explanation for my experiences or that it is objectively true. We have a case of what is logically possible playing off against what is actually plausible.

Secondly, Descartes appealed to the imagination by describing how one can imagine themselves without a body, as just a mind, and that this shows the distinctness of the mind from the body. However, simply imagining something is the case in no way means that it is the case in reality. Descartes seems to infer that the mind and body being one is somehow a logical impossibility. I could draw a crow without wings, but this does not necessarily mean that the animal drawn exists. Although any such arguments will always boil down to the epistemological certainty of cogito ergo sum, there is no knowing that the mind can and does exist apart from the body. This simply begs the question[3]. Descartes may claim that the two are logically distinct, but that would be a distinction based on faith since he cannot know that one can exist without the other. Being able to distinguish the two metaphysically does not mean it follows that they are entirely separable. I can imagine both a crow without wings and a mind without body. To argue that this logically proves the separation of mind from body, it would follow that the same logic means that there can be a crow without wings. Everything imaginable is not existent.

Thirdly, Descartes looked at divisibility. Since, he claimed, the body can be divided up (two legs, a leg, a shin, an ankle…), and the mind cannot be divided up, then this shows a simple differentiation between the two. However, this is not so straightforward either, since the shape of a sculpture and the sculpture itself are separate entities and in a metaphysical sense divisible – I can imagine the abstract idea of a sculpture and its necessary properties and I can imagine the shape of the sculpture as the real thing. Yet this does not entail that in reality the sculpture and its shape can be separated in any meaningful sense. Descartes asserts that this shows that mind and body are completely different, but it is in reality a much weaker claim. The mind and body differ in this one essence or property – extension – but they may be similar in many others. He needs a firmer conclusion of complete diversity to show total independence from one another (See Skirry 2006). If the mind was an extension of the brain itself, then the mind would technically be divisible too.

Moreover, there is a sense in which the mind can be separated. Schizophrenics suffer multiple personalities where different characters can be compartmentalised. We could say that our memories can be separated from our emotions. Certain brain malfunctions or injuries can result in distinct parts of the mind being affected, such as a loss of long or short-term memory, the loss of emotion, the inability to perceive certain things in certain ways and so on. These examples blur the line between brain and mind. Descartes himself, in The Passions of the Soul (paragraph 47), declares that there are lower and higher, rational and sensitive parts of the soul, potentially invalidating his own theory.

In trying to separate the mind from the body, and for the purposes of this essay I have not investigated these ideas in anything like the detail with which they can be, Descartes has employed some logic and arguments that do not particularly stand up to close scrutiny. After all, if I cut off my head, there is nothing short of blind faith that would indicate that my mind or soul would continue living separately from my body. There is a circularity to how Descartes argues the separateness of the mind from the body.

Given that the mind and the body are different in some way (perhaps only in a definitional sense such as the shape of the sculpture and the sculpture itself), what does Descartes make of the body?

Whilst there is some confusion and changing of mind as to whether the body makes up part of the ‘I’, or whether the ‘I’ is merely the mind, he is clearly at pains to differentiate the two. As he says in Meditations (p.10), “The mind is proved to be really distinct from the body, even though the mind is shown to be so closely joined to the body that it forms a single unit with it”. The body, in its material existence, is likened to a machine – though it must be emphasised the soul is seen as the helmsman to ‘the Good Ship Body’. As Descartes proclaims:


I suppose the body to be nothing but a statue or machine made of earth… We see clocks, artificial fountains, mills, and other such machines which, although only man-made, have the power to move of their own accord in many different ways.[4]


This is a sentiment which he repeats elsewhere:


This will not seem as all strange to those who know of many kinds of automatons, or moving machines, the skill of man can construct with the use of very few parts, in comparison with the great multitude of bones, muscles, nerves, arteries, veins and all the other parts that are in the body of any animal. For they will regard this body as a machine which, having been made by the hands of God, is incomparably better ordered than any machine that can be devised by man, and contains in itself movements more wonderful than those in any such machine.[5]


The mechanistic language makes things quite clear – the mechanisms of the body are deterministic. That is not to say that what the body does is entirely the result of (material) deterministic mechanisms, as according to Descartes, since the immaterial soul is causally linked further up the chain. He also states that many actions of the body do not take place as a result of the volition of the soul; in other words, there is a larger range of actions than we probably realise that are automatic. Here, Descartes gives the example of defensively putting your hand in front of your eyes when a friend only jokingly goes to hit you:


… [all the objects of our external senses and of our internal appetites] Besides causing our soul to have various different sensations, these various movements in the brain can also act without the soul, causing the spirits to make their way to certain muscles rather than others, and so causing them to move our limbs… This shows that it is not through the mediation of our soul that they close, since this action is contrary to our volition, which is the soul’s only activity, or at least its main one. They close rather because the mechanism of our body is so composed that the movement of the hand towards our eyes produces another movement in our brain, which directs the animal spirits into the muscles that make our eyelids drop.[6]


He also maintains that there are many mechanistic movements of the body that we do not consciously will, and are thus automatic (without “mental volition”), such as “heartbeat, digestion, nutrition, respiration, when we are asleep, and also such waking actions as walking, singing and the like”[7]. Furthermore, the modes of the body can causally interact with the mind. The body, as well as being able to be influenced by the mind, can influence the mind too. It is a two-way street.

I must take this opportunity to mention that I could take issue with Descartes and insist that all actions, and even thoughts, of the body take place in such a deterministic and mechanistic manner, such as might be espoused by epiphenomenalists[8], for there is some good philosophical evidence to defend such a position[9]. I will, though, assume Descartes’ position, for the sake of argument, that the body is, indeed, mechanistic and that the mind / soul can interact with the body, causally and volitionally, to produce bodily effects. Therefore, I will ignore the issues concerning how interactionism works (how the physical dimension can causally affect the immaterial dimension and vice-versa[10]).

Whilst we have seen how Descartes viewed the body, his view of the soul is a little more complex. The mind (and I will use the terms ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ interchangeably, for they are synonymous as far as Descartes was concerned), for Descartes, was very difficult to pin down in any kind of definitional sense. This is because the mind, as described by him, has very few positive qualities. It is easy to say what the mind is not (material, determined etc), but not so easy to define what it is. It is claimed to be invisible, without dimensions, unitary, without limit and so on. We cannot conceive, so Descartes would say, of half of a soul and as such it has no extension. It is not affected (or at least doesn’t cease to be a unitary object) if we cut off some part of the body (apart from the head, one could surmise[11]) though it is joined to the whole body[12] through, as mentioned, the pineal gland in the brain. This is the conduit through which the soul enjoys some degree of control over the body (and vice versa on occasion).

Descartes claims that he is a “thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions”[13]. Since, he claims, that it is nonsensical to ascribe such emotions to material, non-thinking objects such as stones, then only the mind can have such abilities. I must also advise that Descartes was not immutable in his philosophy and in different works we can see edited and refined ideas, or changes, or, indeed, entirely different philosophies[14].

Essentially, though, it seems that the soul is mainly a thinking entity, such that Descartes says, “Thus, because we have no conception of the body as thinking in any way at all, we have reason to believe that every kind of thought present in us belongs to the soul”[15]. Let us look at how Descartes approaches the way in which the soul accesses memory:


Thus, when the soul wants to remember something, this volition makes the gland lean first to one side and then to another, thus driving the spirits towards different regions of the brain until they come upon the one containing traces left by the object we want to remember. These traces consist simply in the fact that the pores of the brain through which the spirits previously made their way owing to the presence of this object have thereby become more apt than the others to be opened in the same way when the spirits again flow towards them. And so the spirits enter into these pores more easily when they come upon them, thereby producing in the gland that special movement which represents the same object to the soul, and makes it recognize the object as the one it wanted to remember.[16]


As we can see, he also indicates that the soul seems to access memory by making the pineal gland behave in such a way that it can access the memory from the brain. This does seem to be problematic since the soul will need to remember what or that it needs to remember, thus starting an infinite regression.

The key to the mind-body philosophy of Descartes comes with his interactionist views that, rather than explain how, seem to simply provide an assertion that the volitional soul has control over the body of the agent, such that:


… the activity of the soul consists entirely in the fact that simply by willing something it brings it about that the little gland to which it is closely joined moves in the manner required to produce the effect corresponding to this volition.[17]


Descartes also declares that there are different types of souls between different people insofar as some have strong souls whilst other people have weak souls:


For the strongest souls, clearly, belong to people in whom the will can by nature most easily conquer the passions and stop the bodily movements that go with them. But some people never get to test the strength of their souls because they never let their will fight with the soul’s proper weapons, instead letting it use only the ‘weapons’ that some passions provide for resisting some other passions.[18]


This is remarkable language, to me, since it leaves a gaping hole in the philosophy of causality that speaks volumes to one interested in theories of free will. Too often, proponents of free will do not regress their thinking far enough, but somewhat hastily end the chain of causality with a magic origination of free will. What should be asked here is ‘why do people never let their will do X, Y or Z?’ Descartes is saying something almost nonsensical and circular in saying “let their will” since this effectively means ‘will their will’. This is a fairly large blunder on Descartes’ account, in my opinion. To use the term “let their will” as ‘will their will’ is either nonsensical, or make the claim that there is another soul or volitional entity that can have a causative affect on the first soul (the will). Simply put, you can’t let your will do anything, since it is your will that does the letting! This certainly shows a weakness in Descartes’ reasoning when developing ideas about the volition of the soul.

And who decides who gets a stronger soul? How does this happen? Is the journey to a stronger or weaker will determined by things outside of the agent’s control, thus employing determinism? For there to be external influences on the volition of the soul, it renders the volition impotent (or at least greatly impaired in value. There is no point in waxing lyrical about volition being one of the main activities of the soul to then accept that the soul is itself causally determined by external factors.

Putting these issues aside, let us sum up what we can find from Descartes’ writings on what the body and soul are. The body seems to be a mechanistic and material entity which can have causal influence over the soul, as well as be controlled by the volitional soul. This interaction takes place in the pineal gland. The soul, on the other hand, is more difficult to define, being immaterial, dimensionless, lacking in extension and so on. It is also the seat of thinking, and these thoughts can, through the pineal gland, will the brain and body to its own ends.

Therefore, we can see that at least some of the time, the soul is in control in a freely volitional sense. Remember, Descartes has already told us that the main activity of the soul is the utilisation of free will: “since this action is contrary to our volition, which is the soul’s only activity, or at least its main one”. It is from here that I want to investigate whether the immaterial soul can be the originator of free will. Let us first, though, look at free will, and the term originator. Although this is not a Cartesian term, it is a position that he must be committed to being based on his supposition that the soul is the source of volition in an agent’s activities.

The idea of free will in its most widely understood form[19] (especially if agents are declared as morally responsible) requires the idea that the agent could have acted differently when carrying out an action. This idea is often known as The Principle of Alternate Possibilities. Descartes declared that “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained”[20] which places his cards nicely on the table. This can even happen “when a very evident reason moves us in one direction”[21]. To be the possessor of free will, the agent has to have ownership over the action. By this, I mean that the causal chain cannot be further regressed to find determining reasons for so doing. A reason, if it is not causally active, is not really a reason. A reason cannot be non-determining because by simply discounting a reason (A) not to do something in a decision, you are computing, using rationality, the attractiveness of that reason. Thus by seeing the A as unattractive, you are still inputting A into a matrix of reasoning to compute the eventual outcome. Although A may not make the agent act, it is part of the mental calculations that do bring about the eventual action. 

The notion that we do have alternate possibilities to act in a given situation is always difficult to argue, and much ink has been spilled[22] over whether an agent can indeed be the originator of free will in any meaningful way. This is because every agent has a causal circumstance – all the molecules of the universe acting on or with the agent at the time of the action, the history and learning of the agent up until that moment, and the genes of the agent themselves. If you take all of these causally active ingredients away from the equation, then what is there left? Well, Descartes would argue that the immaterial soul can be seen as outside of this causal circumstance and can be the originator, the starter, of the causal chain itself. It provides the origin of free will. Determinists[23], on the other hand, would argue that the only origination of the causal chain would be the Big Bang, or similar, and that free will (in the basic sense) does not exist.

So since an effect or event cannot be uncaused as would be argued by the Kalam Cosmological Argument, then the volition of will becomes the uncaused cause for the beginning of the causal chain. Volition is an event that Descartes would claim has no cause – it is self-caused. This, controversially and as I hinted at earlier, denies the existence of motives and other causal influences on the agent. Again, we return to the ideas of reason and rationality and the idea that even considering a reason brings it into causality.

Let us assume that, without problem, the soul or mind in its immaterial form can be the originator of free will. Let us assume that the causal chain can start with the freely willing soul and that this can then affect the mechanistic body to allow material effects based on the notion of free will. I will now look to illustrate that the soul, while it may be the originator of the causal chain, may be no freer than the mechanistic and physical body.

The first idea that I want to deal with is the notion of identity and property. In order for the soul to be an existent entity it must have properties that distinguish it as a soul. Even if the soul was the only thing within the immaterial dimension, then it must still have properties that distinguish it from things from without that dimension. In simple terms, a soul must, like any existent entity, have properties that define it as being a soul and not a ‘not-soul’.

These properties, some might claim, could well be abstracts or universals. As is understood by the definition of abstracts and universals, it is generally accepted that they are causally inert, incapable of affecting a causal chain. As Gideon Rosen says, “abstract objects are normally supposed to be causally inert in every sense”[24]. There is much more to be said here, but it would worth referring to other literature on the existence condition of properties here. Suffice it to say, though there is much debate to be had here, I would posit that the properties of the soul are themselves causally inert, unable to affect the causal chain. However, the properties themselves are reflective of the actual soul.

In the physical dimension, we could take the example of, say, a chair. Although the label ‘chair’ is an abstraction of the actual matter itself, the chair can be said to have certain properties that enable it to be recognised and defined as a ‘chair’. This may be the physical arrangement of molecules to take the form of a platform with four legs and a back. These properties are different to the properties of, say, a stone. These two entities have clearly recognisable and definable properties that allow them to be clearly differentiated and described as such. In the same way, a soul must have such properties so that it cannot be confused with something else, so you could recognise it as such and say ‘that is a soul’ or ‘this is what a soul does or is’. Although the properties of the soul might not be reflective of the physical dimension, they must still be properties of some description.

Obviously, without knowing exactly how the soul is ‘constructed’ due to our lack of knowledge of exactly what the soul is (and I am aware of the physical verbiage that I have to employ here), it is very hard to second guess the philosophy of its properties. The philosophical area of properties is a notoriously difficult and complicated subject.

Let us look to see whether talk of the physical dimension can lead us to infer theories and conclusions about the non-physical dimension of the soul. What we can ask ourselves to help clarify the point here is ‘what stops the chair becoming a stone?’ The properties of the chair, with no other forces or entity acting on it (ceteris paribus), would remain constant. This constancy remains due to the laws acting within the physical world. However, common-sense understanding of laws is often misleading. This is because scientific laws are descriptive as opposed to being prescriptive: “But scientific laws are descriptive; they state how phenomena in nature do in fact always behave”[25]. For example, if you took evolution by natural selection as a scientific theory (law, since all laws are theories, in theory!), then genes in organisms do not mutate because they have to, and new organisms (in simple terms) do not originate because the biological matter is following a theory / law that has been objectively set out for all the molecules to strictly adhere to. What actually happens is that biological matter behaves in a cause and effect framework in dependable and consistent ways, and in combination with environmental factors, and in doing so achieve certain observable ends. This consistency of behaviour which is empirically observed and is formulated by man into a law that simply describes said regular behaviour. It does not dictate the behaviour.

Scientific laws are plentiful and describe the myriad of behaviours of matter in the universe, mathematical and otherwise and have properties such as being universal (happening everywhere in the universe), simple, absolute (nothing in the universe can affect them), omnipotent (everything in the universe applies to them) and so on[26]. Thus for the chair to turn into the stone we would have to observe a process that strictly adhered, or more accurately, cohered to the laws of the universe. What keeps the chair being a chair is the behaviour of the matter of the chair which acts in predictable and ‘law-abiding’ ways.

For the chair not to adhere to the laws of the universe, i.e. to behave in a unpredictable manner, then we would have something that would have the characteristic of being random. Matter does not behave randomly. If it did, material existence would entirely break down. There would be no coherence, no matter and no life. The universe, matter and life need consistency of behaviour in order for there to be complexity. I will touch on unpredictability soon, as some people erroneously conflate randomness with unpredictability. a little more, soon.

So we can see that laws, or predictable consistency of behaviour, are absolutely essential to the existence of anything and everything in the universe. The term ‘everything in the universe’, in this case, means anything with a definable identity and which has properties. What stops the chair becoming a ‘not-chair’, ceteris paribus, then, are the laws of nature – the predictable behaviours of the matter of the chair. Of course, the chair can become a ‘not-chair’, but within the predictable framework of nature, and as a result of other causes. For example, it could rot in the damp, or be broken into pieces. But this, as mentioned, is predictable and adheres to law-like behaviour (the process of rot, of the mechanisms of a rock falling on the chair).

Now let us return to the subject of the immaterial soul. Although the soul is not physical and is not defined by the physical behaviour of matter in the material universe, we can draw parallels. The properties of laws themselves, of behaviours and of the philosophy of science are abstractions. These are not defined by the laws for physics, for example, but by the laws of logic. Logic is a law that works in the abstract, immaterial world of thought. The world, it seems, that is occupied by the Cartesian soul, or it is at least the function that the soul carries out. There are laws to logic; mathematics is undergirded by logic and mathematics underpins the physical laws of the universe. Sense is made of the world by more consistently acting within the confines of logic and rationality. It has contributed to how humans have succeeded in socialising. Without logical consistency, there would be chaos. For example:

P1) All writers use pens

P2) Jim is a writer

C) Therefore, Jim uses a pen.

Now, this logic is universal, is always true, given a consistent use of language that underpins the premises. Without this consistency of logic, if in only some cases of the argument being applied Jim uses a pen, then logic is rendered impotent, meaningless. It cannot only be logical or work some of the time as it has to be universal. Therefore, it seems, even in mental abstractions, there is order created by rules and consistency. People who do think irrationally find life rather difficult, and those around them, being unable to predict their actions in any way, find it difficult to interact effectively with them.

What, then, stops the soul becoming a not-soul? This question is equally relevant to the immaterial world of the soul as it is to the physical world of the chair. Even if the soul is entirely unitary, as Descartes believed, then this is still a problem. A single entity, or an entity made up of constituent parts, still has to behave as that entity in order to be labelled with that identity. Thus the soul, it would seem, must act like a soul, and must have the many different properties of a soul, in order to be called (or to be) a soul. Therefore, the soul must adhere to strict soul-like behaviours for it to remain a soul and to be labelled as a soul. These behaviours, I posit, must be predictable and law-like in order for the soul not to have aspects of random, or, indeed, to descend into random chaos. Random within any system will lead to chaos and unpredictability. Within the context of a soul, and free will, random does not help either. Aspects of random do not allow an agent control, and free will is concerned with the agent having control over a decision. This is similar to the objection to when proponents of free will use quantum indeterminacy within the brain and consciousness (given its interpreted existence) to allow for free will. An indeterminate variable may lead to indeterminism but it does not allow free will. To exemplify this, I will refer you to Pearce (2010) p. 43:


Doug had a choice over whether to do X or Y. Determinism would posit that Doug had no choice to carry out X in always choosing Y, whereas free will would state that Doug chose to carry out X, but could also have chosen Y. Now, assuming that quantum indeterminacy is true, then not everything that happens is physically and knowably determined – some of the most minute things are indeterminately caused. So, does this mean that Doug could have chosen Y, with the addition of indeterminacy?  No. In both versions of determinism, the variables that input into his ‘decision’ are out of control of Doug. Either X was carried out as an action as a result of a 100% causal chain, with no aspect of indeterminacy, or X was carried out as a result of a mixture of a causal chain and the indeterminate behaviour of subatomic particles. In both options, the ‘decision’ made is still made as a result of a previously determined causal chain, it just so happens that in one of the options, part of that chain includes quantum indeterminacy (a bit of random). Thus, you can say that quantum indeterminacy caused the decision to be made in such a way. In both methods, Doug has no free will, his options are determined, whether one of those options had an aspect of randomness in its chain or not.


As discussed, random does not give the agent control in any way. Volition or free will are not good bedfellows with random, to put it another way. So in order for the soul to exist coherently, the soul must exist within an entirely predictable framework. In other words, the soul must be entirely determined as things are in the physical universe[27]. What I am suggesting, then, on the grander scale, is that anything with identifiable and consistent properties must be deterministic. In this way, the soul cannot be the originator of free will, or if it is, it is so within a deterministic framework such that free will is not, indeed, free.

One could posit another entity beyond the soul, or parallel to the soul, which provides the volition to the soul. In order to say there must be some non-determined entity in control of the soul, if one surmises that the soul is itself determined, then we are prone to an infinite regress of looking for originators that are themselves non-determined.

As hinted at earlier, a further problem is that in order for the soul to be the originator of volition, the part that decides to do X rather than Y, it must not be constrained by rules, laws or universally consistent behaviour otherwise the decision will always be one way or the other. Yet it makes no sense for there to be any random involved in the decision (for free will to be meaningful) and it seems that the soul cannot, if my argument stands, have any kind of non-determined property.

As a result, it would seem to me that we are left with an argument which can be formulated as follows (and which I call the Argument from Format):


P1 – An entity which exists has properties and identity.


P2 – In order for the entity to be recognised with such properties and identity it must have a format which exists within a framework of deterministic laws and behaviours.


P3 – The soul, if it exists, is the originator of free will (a la Descartes).


P4 - If the soul exists, it must have a format and a framework of deterministic laws to enable it to be identified as such.


C – Therefore, either the soul does not exist, or it is not the originator of free will (it is deterministic).


If any weaknesses exist in the argument, I feel they would be found in P2. The one criticism that I could see levelled at the argument is that it is inductive. The application of laws to the soul to retain its identity is using past uniformities, quite possibly. I am using examples of identity and properties from other entities and applying their rules of format to the soul. Here, we might enter into the realms of Hume’s Problem of Induction. Can we indubitably say that gravity will always send this ball downwards when I drop it, based on past observations? Well, deductively, we cannot. However, that does not mean that the theory of gravity is not true, or a highly plausible and probable outcome. Likewise, it is highly probabilistic and plausible that the soul is determined. In fact, it seems to me that it would be nonsensical if it was not.

The nonsensicality of it comes partly as a result of there being an uncaused cause. Similar to the Kalam Cosmological Argument[28], claiming the soul is the originator of free will is saying there is an uncaused cause for the decision at the beginning of the causal chain. In other words, the decision cannot be causally regressed further back from the soul, which sounds awfully similar to saying that there was no reason for the decision (as mentioned earlier when talking about the causal circumstance). This is somewhat of an aside to my central argument but it seems pertinent to mention that every decision warrants a reason (otherwise it is random), and as soon as reasons are given, we defer to rationality and the determining factors for the rationality employed by the agent. Some people claim that reasoning may influence the agent but not determine them. Let’s arbitrarily assign ‘reasoning’ as influencing a decision of Agent A a 75% influence towards choice X. She chooses X. If reason is only responsible for 75%, then where does the other 25% come from which helps to create that decision? If it is not reason, then it is ‘unreasoned’. If it is unreasoned, then it is effectively random. Thus, positing that reason can only partially influence an agent is seemingly incoherent.

 Rationality is based entirely on our education and learning, our genetic make up and neurological status, and the variables at hand. Therefore, on several levels, positing that the soul is the originator of free will is a hard sell. There is always a context to reason and rationality that cannot be ignored in any discussion about free will and determinism. I sometimes label this the ‘Soul of the Gaps Argument’ (akin to the God of the Gaps Argument) where the soul magically plugs the free will origination hole without any kind of proper explanation.

To conclude, in this essay I have looked to agree with Descartes in his theories about the mechanistic qualities of the body. I have taken this further to posit that these qualities are evident ubiquitously across the material universe. I have then looked at what the soul could be using the writings of Descartes, concluding that we simply don’t know but assume it to be entirely non-physical in format. However, since it must have properties and identity to be labelled and recognised as a soul, I posit that the soul must adhere to a framework of deterministic laws and behaviours. As a result, the soul cannot be the originator of free will, since it is a determined entity.

I have also touched upon the incoherence of the soul being the basis of free will since an uncaused cause out of the context of the causal circumstance becomes a nonsensical notion.



Aquinas, T., ‘’Summa Theologica’

Blackburn, S. (1994;2008), Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy’, Oxford ; Oxford University Press

Descartes, R., (1664) ‘Treatise on Man’,

Descartes, R., (1649) ‘The Passions of the Soul’

Descartes, R., (1641) ‘Reply to Fourth Set of Objections’ in ‘Meditations’

Oeuvres De Descartes (1983), 11 vols., edited by Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin

The Philosophical Writings Of Descartes (1988), 3 vols., translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Volume 3 including Anthony Kenny), Cambridge ; Cambridge University Press

Harris, C. E. (1956), The Ethics of Natural Law, from Applying Moral Theories, Belmont, CA ; Wadworth

Kocsis, S., et al (2011), ‘Observing the Average Trajectories of Single Photons in a Two-Slit Interferometer’, Science ,3 June 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6034 pp. 1170-1173

Pearce, J. M. S. (2010), ‘Free Will? An investigation into whether we have free will or whether I was always going to write this book’, Fareham ; Ginger Prince Publications

Rosen, G. (2001), ‘Abstract Objects’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Skirry, J. (2006), ‘René Descartes: The Mind-Body Distinction’, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://www.iep.utm.edu/descmind/ retrieved 02/09/2011)

Wegner, D. M. (2002), ‘The Illusion of Conscious Will’’ Cambridge, Mass. ; MIT Press / Bradford Books

[1] On the point of interactionism, I will stay clear of the problems of this theory (the nonmaterial causally interacting with the material), though I have dealt with this in Pearce (2010).

[2] Epistemology being the study of knowledge.

[3] Such arguments bare close resemblance to ontological arguments for God.

[4] Descartes, Treatise on Man, p.1

[5] Descartes, Discourse on the Method; The Philosophical Writings Of Descartes I: 139

[6] Descartes, The Passions of the Soul, paragraph 13

[7] Descartes, Reply to Fourth Set of Objections

[8] Epiphenomenalism is the belief that consciousness is the natural by-product of the mechanistic brain / physical body in the same way that steam is the by-product of boiling water. However, the mind cannot causally interact with the physical world, even though it may seem to do just that.

[9] See Pearce (2010) and Wegner (2002).

[10] To which Descartes tried to eliminate the problem, “These questions presuppose amongst other things an explanation of the union between the soul and the body, which I have not yet dealt with at all. But I will say, for your benefit at least, that the whole problem contained in such questions arises simply from a supposition that is false and cannot in any way be proved, namely that, if the soul and the body are two substances whose nature is different, this prevents them from being able to act on each other.” Ouevres de Descartes, 11 vols., eds. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, Paris: Vrin, 1974-1989,VII 213:

[11] Though Descartes would assert that the soul could live past the decapitation based, primarily, on faith derived from the logic he used. We don’t know that the soul could live past a decapitation, and it would take a brave man to test it out!

[12] Building on the ideas of Thomas Aquinas who said, “In each body the whole soul is in the whole body, and whole in each part of it” (Aquinas quoting Augustine‘s On the Trinity, book 6, ch. 6 in Summa Theologica).

[13] Ibid., VII 28

[14] At times Scholastic-Aristotelian hylomorphist, a gradually more extreme Platonist, idealist, materialist, epiphenomenalist, parallelist, non-parallelist and so on. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pineal-gland/#2.4 (retrieved 29/08/2011)

[15] Descartes, Ouevres de Descartes, 11 vols., eds. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, Paris: Vrin, 1974-1989, XI:329


[16] Ibid., XI:360

[17] Ibid., XI:359

[18] Descartes, The Passions of the Soul, Paragraph 48.

[19] Particularly in the realms of compatibilism, where free will is seen as being compatible with determinism, free will, as a term, is often redefined. This is because determinism can be defined as ‘not free will’, and free will cannot be compatible with ‘not free will’. Logically speaking.,

[20] Descartes (1984). Meditations on First Philosophy [1641] and Passions of the Soul [1649], in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. I-III, translated by Cottingham, J., Stoothoff, R., & Murdoch, D.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, v.I, 343

[21] Ibid., v.III, 245

[22] Such as by myself in Pearce (2010)

[23] One who believes that there is no free will and that every action adheres strictly to a framework of cause and effect.

[24] Rosen, Abstract Objects, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/abstract-objects/  (retrieved 30/08/2011)

[25] Harris, C. E. (1956), The Ethics of Natural Law, from Applying Moral Theories, http://www.central.edu/philrel/nlaw.html (retrieved 31/08/2011)

[26] See Davies, P. (1993), The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World, Simon & Schuster

[27] I don’t want to get into asides on quantum indeterminacy of which there are many different interpretations, deterministic and otherwise. Interestingly, the work of Koscis et al seems to go a long way to invalidating the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

[28] P1 – Everything that begins to exist has a cause

P2 – The universe began to exist

P3 – Therefore, the universe had a cause 

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