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Rationalist philosophy on the free will

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If Thomism attributes free will to Adam, in the Garden of Eden, mainly to impute to him the origin of evil through disobedience to the order given by God not to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which makes him responsible for original sin (Genesis, chapter 3), other philosophers see things differently, depending on whether their thinking takes place before the Cartesian revolution or after.

The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens, c. 1615. (The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens, c. 1615. Credit: Wikimedia)


For Maimonides:

  • the knowledge of good and evil is different from the science of true and false;
  • this non-coincidence is a last resort because, in the Garden of Eden before the fall, the rational knowledge of true and false made useless, and even non-existent, that of good and evil.

“By reason man distinguishes the true from the false and this takes place in all intelligible things”
Guide to the Lost, Part 1, chap. 2

The good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly do not emerge from the intelligible, from the rational, but from opinion, from the probable.

As long as Adam possessed perfectly and completely the knowledge of all things known and intelligible, there was in him no faculty which applied to probable opinions and he did not even understand them (ibidem). Good and evil didn’t even exist; only the intelligible and necessary things existed. The loss of this perfect knowledge of all intelligible things from which his fusion with God benefited him brought Adam to a new state, a different world:

  • things are known to him otherwise than by reason,
  • how he knows them depends on his contingent opinion of them: they are beautiful or ugly, good or bad.


For Spinoza, free will is a total illusion which comes from the fact that man is aware of his actions but not of the causes which determine him to act. Indeed, man is not an “empire within an empire” but a part of the infinite substance which he calls God or nature.

However, man does have a freedom insofar as he understands with his reason why he acts. Is therefore free he who knows that he has no free will and who acts by the sole necessity of his nature, without being constrained by external causes which cause passions in him.

“If men were born free, and so long as they were free, they would form no concept of good and evil […] [for] He is free who is led by reason alone and who has, by consequent than adequate ideas”
Ethics IV, Proposition 68

The free man therefore has no concept of good and evil which is the result of inadequate and confused ideas, no more than of a good which would be correlated to it. Spinoza defines the good at the beginning of Part IV of the Ethics:

“What we know for sure is useful to us”
Ethics IV, definition 1

Bringing this definition closer to his Preface and propositions 26 and 27, his ethics would refer us to an ethics of virtues rather than to utilitarianism.

However, observing that men are only parts of nature, he deduces that this assumption of human freedom from birth is false. The parts of nature are subject to all its determinations, and they are exterior to man. He therefore considers that man’s feeling of freedom results from the fact that he only knows the immediate causes of the events encountered. He then rejects free will, speaking instead of “free necessity” (Letter to Schuller).

Spinoza then comments on the episode of the Garden of Eden.

“It is this determination that the words of Moses seem to signify in the famous story of the first man […] this original impossible freedom when Moses tells that God forbids the free man to eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil and that as soon as he ate it, he would fear death more than he would desire life.”
Ethics IV, Proposition 68, Scolia

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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