The Materialism of Hobbes, Part II

In the last installment, we touched on the four cornerstones of Thomas Hobbes’ physical philosophies: materialism, mechanism, determinism, and sensationalism. To put the definitions plainly, Hobbes asserted that:

  1. All the universe is comprised of matter only, including such things as thought and God himself – materialism.
  2. Because all things, including thoughts, are material, (a) all events are brought about by causation and can themselves be the cause of future events, and (b) if enough information can be gleaned, all events could be traced back to an initial cause; similarly, all events could lead to predictable outcomes; this is determinism.
  3. All living things are also strictly material, and so (in Hobbes’ mind) are not unlike machines, which also operate on the basis of cause and effect. Hobbes called this mechanism.
  4. Sensationalism states all data we receive about the physical universe is sensory. This implies not only that the secondary qualities (our interpreted sensory data) of the universe are all we have to describe it, but that individuals may indeed interpret the same data differently, agreeing on terms and descriptions but not necessarily on actual sensual qualities (i.e., we do not see a blue car, we see an object we agree to call a “car” and a frequency of reflected light we agree to call “blue.”) This leads us to representative perception, the notion that sensory data represents, but does not reveal, the (primary) qualities of physical reality.

That left us on the doorstep of a necessary discussion of free will: if everything in the cosmos is the effect of a cause, if nothing springs from its own volition — if even our thoughts are victims of causation, how can anyone be said to operate under free will?

Senses Working Overtime

First, let’s remember that Hobbes was born in the 16th century; science hadn’t yet developed enough of an understanding of physics or biology to describe how the senses worked. Bonus points for following this Hobbesian pretzel of logic:

“Why doth the sensation appear as something situated without the organ? It is true; There is in the whole organ, by reason of its own internal natural action some reaction against the motion which is propagated from the object to the innermost part of the organ. In the organ there is an endeavor opposite to the endeavor which proceedeth from the object. That endeavor inwards is the last action in the act of sense. Then from the reaction, and idea hath its being, which by reason that the endeavor is now outward, doth always appear as something situated without the organ.

One could argue that Hobbes was reasoning from a standpoint of empiricism, a concept brought to light in the 17th and 18th centuries by Berkeley, Locke, and Hume; that all knowledge is derived from sensory input. The technology in Hobbes’ time simply wasn’t up to snuff for testing his theories of sense-organ operation. But, even with knowing then what we know now, the more important question would still be raised: how can anyone be said to operate with “free will” if every thought, emotion, and idle daydream is the effect of a cause? How can I decide to do something as a free agent, if every decision is (merely) the effect of so many external stimuli?

Philosophical Word Games

The answer lies in the fact that Hobbes, when speaking of free will, had a rather different definition for his use of the word “free.” (This actually happens quite often in philosophy, where language is insufficient to explain new concepts and conditions.) Consider the following passage, where Hobbes indicates that the will is as beholden to external stimuli as the senses are:

“I conceive that nothing taken from the beginning from itself, but from the action of some other immediate agent without itself. Therefore, when a man hath an appetite, to which before he had no appetite or will, the cause of his will is not the will itself but something else. […] if by freedom we understand the power, not of willing but of doing what we will, then certainly that freedom is to be allowed to both men and animals.

In other words, the idea of being “free” in Hobbes’ mind isn’t so much one of being allowed to do something (or in having the opportunity to do something), but in being uninhibited in doing it. Remember that Hobbes believed all actions were the reactions to previous causes; as stated in the passage above, the will isn’t responsible for desire directly but is itself subject to cause and effect.

Ain’t No Stopping Us Now

For Hobbes, “free will” isn’t a state where you are free to make your own decisions, but where you are uninhibited from taking action on the decisions you have already made. Your decisions are the results of causality, but your decisions are also uninhibited from being made. For Hobbes, that is what encapsulates “free will.”

The difference between what you or I would call “free will” and what Hobbes was referring to is not intuitive, so allow me to expand on this a moment. Let’s say you are a prisoner in jail somewhere. You see an apple on a table a few feet away from the bars of your cell, but you cannot reach it with your arms alone. Hobbes would say you would have free will to desire the apple (which was only an effect of you having seen it), but you do not have freedom of will to eat it, because your physical environment prohibits your obtaining the apple at all. There has been no cause to result in the effect of your being able to eat the apple.

Hobbes states that what we would call the common, man-in-the-street concept of “free will” is false, an illusion, stating:

“The ordinary definition of a free agent is that […] when all things are present which are needful to produce an effect, [the agent] can nevertheless not produce it. This implies a contradiction that is nonsense […] whatsoever God hath purposed to bring to pass by man, or forseeth shall come to pass, a man might frustrate and make not come to pass if he hath freedom from necessity (causality). Then would God foreknow such things as never shall be, and decree such things as shall never come to pass.”


Let’s take apart Hobbes’ materialism one last time. Materialism states the cosmos consists of moving particles of matter, and nothing more; that concepts, morals, decisions, thoughts, dreams, and emotions we experience are reactions to physical stimuli only; that there is no spirit, no incorporeal essence to existence (and that God himself must be a physical being); that we humans are machines bound to causality as any other contraption, and that “free will” involves the freedom to act within the physical parameters present, and not the ability to change the path of causality or the relentless march of determinism.