I mentioned once during the recording of last week's Lucretius Today podcast session of an argument about pleasure and free will being incompatible, having never fully understood the argument until this morning when I started reading "Thérèse the Philosopher" by Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, the Marquis d'Argens (A French philosopher who shared the court of Frederick the Great with La Mettrie, who also is familiar with Epicurus and Lucretius much like La Mettrie), I'll skip a summary of the novella to explain the argument and then paste some of the text with my interpretation of both, of which [the argument against free will] I had seen before and a peer of mine espoused to me once.
The argument is presented like so:
If pleasure is an innate or intrinsic good, then all decisions are bound by our desire for pleasure
Since all decisions are bound by an external factor, often expressed as what Nature provides or has laid out for us
Then by recognizing pleasure and living a life of pleasure, we do as what Nature intends and not of our own free will
Here's the text from Boyer that explained this to me in a way that I properly understood.
"Answer, deceitful or ignorant theologians who create our crimes at your leisure, who is it that put in me the two passions that I fought, the love of God and that of the pleasure of the flesh? Is it Nature or the devil? Choose. But would you dare suggest that the one or the other is more powerful than God? If they are subordinate, then it was God who had allowed these passions to be in me, it was his work. But, you answer, God gave you reason to enlighten you. Yes, but not to choose for me. Reason had indeed made me see the two passions with which I was agitated, it is through it that I later understood that, having everything from God, I had from him those passions with all their strength. But this same reason that enlightened me did not in the least help me choose. God however, you continue, left you mistress of your will, you were free to decide for good or for evil. Pure wordplay. This will and this so-called freedom only have degrees of strength, only act, in proportion to the degrees of strength of the passions and desires which pull at us. I seem, for example, to be free to kill myself, to throw myself out the window. Not at all: whenever the urge to live is stronger in me than death, I do not kill myself. Such a man, you say, is the master of giving to the poor, to his indulgent confessor, a hundred pounds of gold he had in his pocket. Not in the least: the desire he has to keep his money is stronger than that of obtaining a useless absolution for his sins, he will necessarily keep his money. Finally, anyone can prove to you that Reason only serves to make known to Man the degree of desire he has to do or avoid certain things, combined with the pleasure and displeasure which he must get from these. From this knowledge acquired through Reason, comes what we call will and determination. But this will and determination are also fully subject to the degree of passion or desire as a weight of four pounds necessarily determines the side of a scale that has only two pounds to raise in its other bowl.
But, will say a thinker who only sees the surface, am I not free to drink with my dinner a bottle of Burgundy or Champagne? Am I not free to choose for my walk the avenue of the Tuileries or the Feuillant terrace?
I agree that in all cases where the soul is in a perfect indifference on its choice, that the circumstances where the desire to do certain things is in equal balance, in a just equilibrium, we cannot see this lack of freedom: it is a distance in which we do not discern objects. But go a little closer to them, these objects, we soon see clearly the mechanism of our lives' action and once we know one, we know all, since Nature acts by the same principle.
Our reasoner sits down to the table, he is served oysters: this dish makes him choose Champagne. But, it will be said, he was free to choose Burgundy. I say no; it is quite true that another reason, another desire more powerful than the first could induce him to drink that wine. Well, in this case, the latter would also have forced his supposed freedom.
Our same reasoner, on entering the Tuileries, sees a pretty woman he knows on the terrace of the Feuillants: he decides to join her, unless some other reason of profit or pleasure leads him to the broad paths. But whichever side he chooses, it will always be a reason, a desire that inevitably leads him to take one side or another, that constrains his will.
To admit that Man was free, we must suppose that he decides by himself. But if he is led by the degree of passion by which Nature and feeling affect him, he is not free, a degree of more or less intense desire decides him as inevitably as a weight of four pounds takes up one of three."
Clearly Boyer was influenced by Anthropic Mechanistic Materialism by the likes of Descartes and Hobbes as Therese the Philosopher was published in 1748, the same year in which La Mettrie's Man a Machine was published, the latter would've still retained his position as a hospital administrator, for when he published Man a Machine, the backlash that led to him being sacked came from chaplains within the French Army, La Mettrie would be exiled until he left for Berlin after his friend secured a position from Frederick the Great, so there is perhaps a chance Boyer was inspired.
As for the argument at surface level it seems easy to dismiss it on grounds of, borrowing the words of Boyer himself: "Pure wordplay". Though the argument is not his alone, as I have mentioned before, and it has some aspects that aren't so easy to dismiss. A huge part of theory and pleasure, and even how some of it relates to Epicurean Philosophy is the inclusion of Nature as some entity that becomes apotheosized but not deified. This happens all too often within the Enlightenment, even within our own Epicurean Texts! Nature has become the new god that lays out everything we know about reality by virtue of how we attribute everything to it as well as providing our faculties and the other means in which we both recognize and attain pleasure.
Not wanting to prematurely derail this thread the focus on there being a "Natural" limitation that can only be achieved through reasoning, that can be the topic of another thread. Instead, I'd like to go back to the original problem that I had written out in syllogistic logic.
Immediately I can't claim that the argument brings arbitrary talking points because the logic is sound and not at all formal, despite me writing it as such. We can agree that caterpillars and spiders don't exhibit free will, and they do as what nature intended them to do, but if we recognize that pleasure is what nature set out for us to pursue, then we pattern the behavior of other animals who do as nature intends.
I disagree with the argument but can't easily conquer it without coming up with some contrived notion of free will and how causality behaves. That is to say I don't believe there is fate or necessity that goes anywhere near this, but instead a still undirected yet firm universal logic at play.
I'd love to hear some discussion.