“Kant” Revisited: Thomas Reid

There’s been accusations that I’ve been phoning it in the last couple weeks.

And I have been.

That’s all I’ve got to say about that.

It’s hectic times. Too much to do, and little time to do it. Perhaps I’ll be able to resume “full-time” writing next week. Yet we’ll see. I’m fully devoted to completing Phil Whistle before I’ll resume philosophy. BUT, this is a philosophy blog…SO…here’s some philosophy.

As a reminder, I don’t edit or spellcheck. Perhaps I’ll explain my philosophy of writing in the future. But don’t hold your breath.



Free Will…we love it, we want it, we’ve got it. Perhaps everyone is not convinced, but I say screw em, because that’s not how I’m going to live my life. Of course, we intuitively think, or have knowledge a priori, to use a cliché, that all events in this world are a matter of cause and effect. And that every cause must necessarily have a specific effect, then that throws the whole notion of free will into question. I don’t know, I tend to think that, as individuals we are able to see, or predict certain outcomes, and so are able to exert power to ensure those outcomes. And so, we are not just wind up toys, as I explained in the last episode, that are just objects that are propelled forward in time, and just react as dictated by whatever force is being exerted upon us. While, I guess, we are reacting to the outside world as independent from our minds, we are able to see outcomes very loosely and that’s how we proceed with our actions, because we have a preference for one outcome over the other. And Not necessarily because, we only see one natural course of action, and so therefore we take it. More importantly, we are also able to assess our powers, and determine what sort of outcomes we wish to generate. So we can more or less act spontaneously in time and space, to create outcomes that might not have been foreseen by other individuals, or by whatever else might have occurred through natural progression. Therefore we are not just individuals that act out of passion in response to natural stimuli, but are actually able to enact and generate outcomes that are in accordance with our own will, so therefore we are moral and rational beings.

Am I making any sense? I felt like I just sort of rambled there.

It’s been a long week. But anyways….I bring up Thomas Reid and his work the Essays on the Active Powers of Man. And I guess he’s more or less classified as a libertarian, even though I’m not sure that he called himself that. But before you get too excited, because I know that libertarianism has quite a following on the internet, I’m only concerned with the metaphysical aspects of it, rather than what we commonly think of it nowadays.

So I discussed in the last episode, that Reid defines the will as “a conscious power to determine”. And then defines volition as “the act of willing and determination”. Now there has to be an object of volition. So this sounds like to me that he is very much an empiricist because we need to have a connection to the physical world before we can have any sort of drives of our own. This could be opposed to, let’s say a Kantian view, where we can have certain drives of our own, and we don’t need experience to determine our drives. But that argument evolves later. For right now, Reid wants to make it clear that our will must be based on some sort of object by stating that “as man cannot think without thinking of something, nor remember without remember something, for neither can he will without willing something.” And as I said in the last episode that Reid wants to distinguish between things that are done voluntarily and things done through instinct.

He also wants to divide the will into two actions of the mind, which are desire and command. It seems that desire are the basic things in life, like the need to eat, drink, raise children, etc. However, we do have a degree of control over those desires, so Reid would go on to say that “Desire therefore, even when its object is some action of our own, is only an incitement to will, but it is not volition.” So we can choose whether or not to indulge in those desires, but those are urges that are derived from some outside force, and are therefore things that we feel obligated to fulfill, for failure to do them could have severe consequences like thirst, hunger, dead children, etc.. therefore volition is not involved. So, desire only incites the will.

Now Reid seems to take an strange turn here because I wasn’t expecting him to define command in this way, but he says that “the object of a command is some action of another person, over whom we claim authority; the object of desire may be no action at all.” But he also says that the immediate object of will is some action of our own. So the immediate result of our will is to take action ourselves, of which desire can be a motive, but then command becomes the effect of it, as Reid describes. But he doesn’t want us to think that command itself is just desire expressed through language, but it is, as he says, a social act of the mind…. Because you can communicate it to other intelligent beings. So therefore, Reid would say, “Desire and will are solitary acts, which do not imply any such communication or belief.” End quote. Those things exist without reliance on others.He would go on to say that volition must be something which we believe we have the power to achieve. So even if we desire to do something, like visit outer space, we know that that is out of our power and so therefore we cease to will it. But when we will to do something immediately, our volition takes action. This is called effort, and when we provide effort, then we are conscious of the action.

But what about instinct? You know, life seems to go by so quickly that it’s nearly impossible to be conscious of every action. So therefore instinct and habit are done without the exercise of judgement or will according to Reid. So passions come into play here, and those are the natural desires that we have, and sometimes those are fulfilled without respect to judgement. Often, when we fulfill our passions, violent consequences can follow if we are not careful. In order to prevent our passions from taking over, we must utilize reason, which it appears is done in a calm and dispassionate manner.

So then Reid concerns himself with the voluntary nature of our actions. Virtue now becomes of primary importance. Now virtue here involves acting in accordance to the rules of justice, when there is an opportunity, according to Reid. And so in order to be moral, or have a disposition to be moral, one must possess some virtues.

But ultimately, Reid would say that we are conscious of our voluntary actions because no man can, quote “deliberately attempt what he does not believe to be in his power”. So, I guess through my interpretation, with things you do through instinct, those are things that you do as dictated from nature, as where with things that you do through reason, those are things that you believe that you have the power to control. Even if a crazy person wishes to do something, well, crazy, they must first believe that they have the power to do that action even if it is outside the realm of reason.

Therefore you must believe that you have the power to create some sort of effect with your action. That’s exerting your will. And for brevity’s sake, since there’s a lot to cover here, basically we have the liberty to execute our powers in a moral way. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but don’t take my word for granted, because I could very well be wrong, but with my summary here, you are not necessarily obligated to fulfill your moral duties, it is a choice. But you are aware of your moral obligations. Therefore a person of moral worth will voluntarily fulfill their moral obligations because we are aware of them. Does that make sense? I feel like I’m all over the place here. But, you know, you are conscious of your own power.

As I said earlier, we are not some unconscious object that are propelled forward in time and only react to whatever force is being exerted upon us. But we do know what sort of powers are in our control, although we cannot accurately predict certain outcomes, we can ADEQUATELY predict them, and so we are able to adjust our powers accordingly. Therefore we do exercise control over our will, even if we are not fully conscious of all our immediate actions due to instinct.

2 thoughts on ““Kant” Revisited: Thomas Reid

  1. Free will is when we decide for ourselves what we “will” do, when “free” of coercion or other undue influence. Everyone understands and correctly uses this definition.

    For example, after the Tsarnaev brothers bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013, they hijacked a car and forced the driver at gunpoint to assist them in their escape. Because the driver was not acting of his own free will, he was not charged with “aiding and abetting” the terrorists. But the surviving bomber, who deliberately planned and carried out the attack with his brother, was held responsible for his actions.

    The problem arises when philosophers replace “freedom from coercion or other undue influence” with “freedom from reliable cause and effect”. This is clearly two very different kinds of freedom.

    In fact, “freedom from reliable cause and effect” is a rather silly notion, for two reasons. First, it is an oxymoron, a self-contradiction. Because, without reliable cause and effect, we cannot reliably cause any effect, and would have no freedom to do anything at all. Every freedom we have requires a deterministic universe. Second, reliable cause and effect is an inherent quality of the real world, and is thus neither an external coercion nor an undue influence. It is a very ordinary influence that we’ve taken for granted all our lives.

    The paradox arises from a reification fallacy. We often treat concepts as concrete things when we metaphorically describe how things work in reality. For example, many people mistakenly think that “reliable cause and effect” is “something” that causes things to happen. But it isn’t.

    The physical universe is made up entirely of objects and forces. And these actual things interact in a natural and reliable fashion to bring about all actual events. However, “reliable cause and effect” is not one of these things. It is neither an object nor a force. It is nothing more than a useful way of describing of the behavior of the actual objects and forces. “Causation” is not itself a cause. It is merely a comment.

    As it turns out, though, we happen to be actual physical objects in the physical universe. And we’re special in that we are matter that is organized into a living organism of an intelligent species. The fact that we’re living organisms means that we act purposefully to survive, thrive, and reproduce. The fact that we’re an intelligent species means we come equipped with a neurology capable of imagination, evaluation, and choosing.

    And when we act upon that choice, we are forces of nature, causing changes in our social and physical environment.

    These two facts are simultaneously true:
    (A) When we choose for ourselves what we will do, according to our own purpose and our own reasons, we are acting of our own free will.
    (B) When we choose for ourselves what we will do, according to our own purpose and our own reasons, our choice is deterministic.

    Thus, determinism and free will have always been compatible concepts. It is only when we attempt to replace the actual object (us) with an imaginary object (causation) that we create the silly paradox.

    Liked by 1 person

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