Descartes and the Indifference of God (2)

In a previous post I outlined Descartes’ view that the eternal truths depend on God’s will and raised some questions about the metaphysics involved. In this post I want to raise some epistemological questions: On what grounds does Descartes take himself to be entitled to hold that his account of the divine will is correct? Why doesn’t Descartes instead adopt a principled agnosticism about the eternal truths? According to such an agnostic view we shouldn’t affirm that God couldn’t have made it false that contradictories cannot be true together, for instance. However, neither should we affirm that God could have done so.

In his letter to Mersenne on the 15th April, 1630, Descartes claims for the first time that the mathematical truths have been laid down by God and depend on him entirely (CSMK, 23). He advises Mersenne to “not hesitate to assert and proclaim everywhere” that this is so. At first glance it appears that Descartes is supremely confident that his view is correct. However, in the next paragraph it becomes clear that his motivation is to subject the view to criticism (emphasis added):

I hope to put this in writing … but I do not want you to keep it secret. On the contrary I beg you to tell people as often as the occasion demands, provided you do not mention my name. I should be glad to know the objections which can be made against this view; and I want people to get used to speaking of God in a manner worthier, I think, than the common and almost universal way of imagining him as a finite being.

Moreover, in response to the objection that God could then change the mathematical truths since God’s will is free, the principle that Descartes gives in support of his position is one that yields no more than what we have called “principled agnosticism”. Descartes writes that “In general we can assert that God can do everything that is within our grasp but not that he cannot do what is beyond our grasp”. On the 27th May, 1630, Descartes clarifies to Mersenne that he doesn’t grasp that God is the author of the eternal truths (CSMK, 25). Nevertheless he claims to know that the eternal truths are authored by God:

I know that God is the author of everything and that these [eternal] truths are something and consequently that he is their author. I say that I know this, not that I conceive it or grasp it … To grasp something is to embrace it in one’s thought; to know something, it is sufficient to touch it with one’s thought.

Eight years later, in 1638, just three years before the Meditations were published, Descartes again takes up this issue with Mersenne (27th May; CSMK, 103). In this letter he insists that his view about the eternal truths does not deal with a question that is “beyond the capacity of the human mind” but rather one that is “merely beyond the capacity of our imagination”, so that “our intellect can reach the truth of the matter”.

In the Sixth Set of Replies of the Meditations (CSM II, 294) Descartes writes:

Again, there is no need to ask how God could have brought it about from eternity that it was not true that twice four make eight, and so on; for I admit this is unintelligible to us. Yet on the other hand I do understand, quite correctly, that there cannot be any class of entity that does not depend on God … it would be irrational for us to doubt what we do understand correctly just because there is something which we do not understand and which, so far as we can see, there is no reason why we should understand.

I agree with Descartes that if God could have brought it about that it not be the case that contradictories cannot be true together, and so forth, then we should not expect to understand how God could have done this. However I see no argument in Descartes for how we know that God could have done so.

Later, in his letter dating to 2 May, 1644 (CSMK, 235), which we read for class, Descartes appears to add an important hedge when outlining his position (emphasis added):

The first consideration shows us that God cannot have been determined to make it true that contradictories cannot be true together, and therefore that he could have done the opposite. The second consideration assures us that even if this be true, we should not try to comprehend it, since our nature is incapable of doing so.

The “first consideration” is that “The power of God cannot have any limits”, and seems to me to simply beg the question at hand. Is the subsequent phrase “even if this be true” evidence that Descartes did, in the end, adopt an agnostic position?

Descartes and the Indifference of God (1)

As part of our assigned reading we went through the Sixth Set of Replies of the Meditations (1641), in which Descartes claims that there is a supreme indifference in God (CSM II, 291):

  1. “It is self-contradictory to suppose that the will of God was not indifferent from eternity … for it is impossible to imagine that anything is thought of in the divine intellect as good or true … prior to the decision of the divine will to make it so”.

We also saw that in his letter of 2 May, 1644 (thought to have been to Mesland) Descartes extends this indifference even to logical truths (CSMK, 235):

2.      “The power of God cannot have any limits”.

  1. “God cannot have been determined to make it true that contradictories cannot be true together, and therefore … he could have done the opposite”.

According to Descartes, the truth of (2) shows us the truth of (3).

In my philosophical naiveté I am quite attracted to the tenor of this position, and I’d like help to make better sense of it.

I have two questions about the metaphysics involved. First, what do “could” and “cannot” mean in this context? By (3) it seems that the relevant modality cannot be logical. Second, what is the scope of “anything” and “any”? That is, are there any truths which Descartes might admit don’t result from a divine decision to make them so? For example, (1) is framed in terms of it being “self-contradictory” to hold that God was not indifferent, and so it seems that (3) applies to it. More generally, assume that God brings about every truth and that in each case God could have done the opposite. As special cases, God would have brought about the truth of (1), (2), and (3) but could have done the opposite. Thus, the following paradox seems to result: God could have brought it about that he couldn’t have brought it about.

Descartes first introduced his view about the creation of the eternal truths in a series of letters to Mersenne in 1630, eleven years prior to the Meditations. On the 15th April (CSMK, 23) he claims that even mathematical truths “have been laid down by God and depend on him entirely”. In a subsequent letter to Mersenne three weeks later (6th May; CSMK, 25) Descartes writes that “the existence of God is the first and the most eternal of all possible truths and the one from which alone all others proceed”. Is this an indication that not all truths depend on the will of God? In that case Descartes might allow that (1), (2), and (3) are truths that follow from the truth of the existence of God but which like it do not depend on God’s will. On the other hand, in his 1644 letter Descartes considers claims such as “God might have brought it about that his creatures were independent of him” and simply states that “we should not put these thoughts before our minds” (CSMK, 235). In that case it seems that we should not even consider the paradox formulated above. However why then should the same not apply to (1), (2), and (3) themselves, since they lead to the paradox? This pushes us towards epistemological questions, which I will deal with in a follow-up post.

Reid on Laws of Nature

Reid famously defines an efficient cause to be a being that had the power and the will to produce the effect. In his letter to James Gregory (14th June, 1785) Reid understands a law of nature to be “a purpose or resolution of the author of nature, to act according to a certain rule”. Later, in his Essays on the Active Powers of Man (1788), Reid places the emphasis on the laws being the rules themselves. A law of nature is now “a rule according to which the efficient cause acts” and “a thing conceived in the mind of a rational being, not a thing that has real existence” (Essay IV, IX, 344).

Reid states that laws of nature are either physical or moral. Physical laws of nature “neither restrain the power of the Author of nature, nor bring him under any obligation to do nothing beyond their sphere” (Essay IV, IX, 345). According to Reid, God has sometimes acted contrary to the physical laws, and perhaps sometimes acts without regard to them. Moral laws of nature are the rules proscribed to rational creatures by God. Although they ought to be obeyed, they are often transgressed by humans.

If a law of nature is a rule that is conceived of in the mind of God, and if God is under no obligation with respect to physical laws, then is God similarly under no obligation with respect to moral laws? This question is important because Reid’s first argument in support of the existence of moral liberty relies on the premise that God would not deceive us. Reid claims that we have a natural conviction that we act freely and that to suppose that this sense is fallacious is to impute a lie to God and hence to lay a “foundation for universal scepticism” (Essay IV, VI, 312). What grounds this confidence of Reid? Is there in the background some metaphysical argument purporting to show that God cannot lie, or is the claim merely that God would not lie, based on the evidence of what we know of God’s nature through general revelation in nature or special revelation in scripture?

Hume and the Theory of Apparent Mental Causation

According to the theory of apparent mental causation proposed by Daniel M. Wegner, the late John Lindsley Professor of Psychology in Memory of William James at Harvard University, conscious thoughts do not cause actions. Based on a wide range of research into alien limb syndrome, schizophrenia, utilization behaviour, and the cognitive neuroscience of action, Wegner argues that the relevant conscious thoughts merely function as reliable previews because they (often) share with the action a common cause that is unconscious. On that basis the experience of conscious will is held to be an illusion in that it is a “feeling that comes and goes independent of any actual causal relationship between our thoughts and actions” (Wegner, 2002, x). Wegner claims (2002, 3) that his view that will is not a cause or force, but rather the feeling of such causing or forcing, can also be found in Hume (Treatise, 1739; pt. 3, sec. 1, par. 2):

… by the will, I mean nothing but the internal impression we feel and are conscious of, when we knowingly give rise to any new motion of our body, or new perception of our mind.

In a number of publications (e.g. Wegner & Wheatley, 1999; Wegner, 2002; Wegner, Fuller & Sparrow, 2003; Wegner, 2004; Wegner, Sparrow & Winerman, 2004) Wegner and colleagues argue that the experience of consciously willing an action occurs whenever the relevant conscious thought and action are understood by the agent to meet three criteria: they are compatible with each other (consistency); the thought precedes the action (priority); and no other potential cause conspicuously appears alongside the thought (exclusivity).

By manipulating the three variables experimenters have sought to induce the experience of will. For example, Wegner and Wheatley (1999) devised a Ouija-like cursor that was jointly moved by a subject and a confederate posing as another participant, around a screen displaying fifty small objects. Both were instructed to randomly move the mouse but to stop every 30 seconds or so. Subjects were also told that both participants would hear different soundtracks, containing music and words, over headphones in order to provide a mild distraction. In fact, however, the confederate was given instructions about which movements to make, and the word played to the subject was intended to prime thoughts about a given object prior to resting on it. Although the cursor movement was deceptively forced by the confederate, subjects – in accord with the priority principle – reported feeling that the movement was intentional with a strength inversely proportional to the time between the prime and the stop.

Since the experience of will is thus held to depend on inference based on external cues, Wegner further claims that Hume is “the early clear harbinger of this theory” (2004, 685) and that it “can be understood as an application of his [Hume’s] general analysis of the perception of causality” (2003, 67).

It is always gratifying to find a philosopher being discussed in contemporary science. Two questions naturally arise. First, is Wegner’s exposition of Hume accurate? For example, does Hume really take the will to just be a feeling when he defines it as an “internal impression we feel”? Second, do Wegner’s studies support Hume’s account of free will? On this point I have a provisional response to offer for further discussion.

In the Enquiry (1748; sec. 8, pt. 1, par. 21) Hume argues that some people mistakenly believe that they can perceive a necessary connection between cause and effect that goes beyond that of their constant conjunction. Assuming that such a perceived necessary connection would nonetheless ground constant conjunction, Wegner’s experimental results suggest that in the case of the will such a perception, or claim to have such a perception, is indeed mistaken.

However, Hume’s target is the person who claims to have such a perception in the case of external objects but not in the case of willing. Hume states that even in the former case claims to have such a perception are a pretence, and hence there is no reason to conclude that the determinations of the will are not necessary in the sense that the operations of matter are. Hume is concerned to argue that the only idea of necessity that we have is that of the constant conjunction of objects and the inference of the mind from one to the other. Wegner has merely provided empirical evidence that our conscious thoughts and our actions are not in fact constantly conjoined. Two further questions now arise. First, are Wegner’s theory and the evidence he offers on behalf of it compatible with Hume’s sceptical account of causation and causal inference? Since Wegner is doing empirical science rather than philosophy, I cannot see any reason to hold that he is committed to an account of necessity that goes beyond Hume’s. Second, Hume does not write of “conscious thoughts” but rather of “motives”, “volitions”, and “characters” that can be perceived to be constantly conjoined with actions. Do they always involve conscious thoughts, or can they subsume the postulated unconscious common causes in Wegner’s theory? Here, having little prior exposure to Hume and early modern philosophy, I am less sure.

The Cartesian Model and Cognitive Science

Although I have had little prior exposure to studies in the History of Philosophy, the class readings last week had a familiar ring to them.

Descartes’ theory of the intellect and the will was brought to the attention of cognitive scientists through a series of papers in the early 1990s by Daniel T. Gilbert and colleagues (Gilbert, Krull & Malone, 1990; Gilbert, 1991; Gilbert, Tafarodi & Malone, 1993). The focus in this literature is on the following claim from the Fourth Meditation (56), with square brackets indicating an addition to the French version:

Now all that the intellect does is to enable me to perceive [without affirming or denying anything] the ideas which are subjects for possible judgments.

For Gilbert (1991, 108) the “Cartesian model”, according to which some form of understanding occurs without reference to truth or falsity and prior to any evaluation of veracity, set an historical precedent:

Borrowing liberally from the Stoic philosophers, René Descartes was the first modern thinker to formalize this notion by partitioning the mind into relatively active (controlled) and passive (automatic) domains. Comprehension, he claimed, was passive: Ideas impressed themselves upon the mind as physical objects might upon soft wax … Although having ideas was effortless and automatic, accepting or rejecting those ideas was not. Descartes considered the assessment of an idea’s veracity to be the operation of the voluntas – the active, conscious, wilful force of the psyche.

In the Fourth Meditation Descartes aims to bring together the view that God gave us our faculties and his conviction that in God he “can find no cause of error or falsity” (54). In particular, he claims that God “did not give me the kind of faculty which would ever enable me to go wrong while using it correctly” (54). Given that humans do go wrong, Descartes proposes that such errors result solely from an incorrect use of one’s will in making affirmations or denials about matters that one does not clearly understand. In those cases the correct response is to exercise one’s freedom to refrain from making such judgments.

In contrast, Spinoza held that “Will and intellect are one and the same thing” and thus he was led to “deny that a man does not, in the act of perception, make any affirmation” (Ethics, 49th Proposition). According to the “Spinozan model”, as explicated by Gilbert, all ideas (including erroneous ones) are accepted as true in the initial process of understanding, but may be judged false through a process of assessment which typically quickly follows.

Within cognitive science it is commonly held that the process of assessment, understood in a broad sense, utilizes a “tagging” system in order to indicate truth-values. Under the Cartesian model ideas are initially untagged and may be subsequently tagged as either true or false. Under the Spinozan model untagged ideas are treated as true but may be subsequently tagged as false; thus, assessing an idea to be false is more demanding than assessing an idea to be true, in that it involves an additional step of actively unaccepting the idea. Although the Cartesian and Spinozan models both incorporate two stages (“understanding” and “assessment”), and under ideal conditions yield the same end results for assessments of truth and falsity, they diverge for cases in which the process at the second stage is either (i) resource depleted or (ii) interrupted. The Spinozan model predicts that false ideas should be taken for true ideas, but not vice versa, whereas the Cartesian model predicts no such asymmetry.

A number of studies have sought to provide an empirical test of the two models. For example, in Experiment 1 of Gilbert et al. (1990) subjects read a series of statements and were later asked to judge whether they were true or false. Subjects were also asked to quickly press a button when they heard a tone (the “distractor task”), which on a third of the trials was sounded 750ms after the relevant statement was presented. The interruption had no effect on the correct identification of true statements (55% vs. 58%) but did significantly reduce the number of correct identifications of false statements (55% vs. 35%). Importantly, Gilbert et al. (1993) provide evidence that when assessment is interrupted subjects will not merely tend to report false statements as being true, but will be prepared to base consequential behavior on those statements.

Within the limits of a brief blog post it is not possible to summarize or evaluate the scientific arguments for and against the Cartesian model, but I hope to have provided a flavor of how it has been operationalized. The research is especially interesting because although the picture of cognition that emerges from contemporary science differs in many ways from the picture that is found in the writings of Descartes, his view that we entertain “ideas” without taking them to be true (or false) has remained the common wisdom in science and philosophy. Although we may not be aware that we are treating the ideas as true, the issue is not that the stimulus is subliminal, that the ideas are non-conscious, or that our judgments are biased by uncontrollable heuristics and processing constraints.

The scientific literature raises two sets of questions in my mind. First, is the “Cartesian model” faithful to the philosophy of Descartes, and are Gilbert’s historical claims accurate? For example, precisely what do “passive” and “active” mean for Descartes, and could a Spinozan intellect reasonably be said to be affirming the ideas in a way that Descartes denies? Second, assuming for the sake of argument that the Spinozan model (which for our purposes we do not require to be faithful to Spinoza) is the correct one, does it fatally compromise Descartes’ position that God is not the cause of error or falsity? One worry is that the tagging mechanism under the Spinozan model of unaccepting an idea fails to allow for the possibility of refraining from taking an idea to be true or to be false, as is the case when judgment is suspended under the Cartesian model. However, it is not difficult to supplement the account by introducing, for example, an “uncertain” tag. Given that caveat, if ideas are affirmed by the intellect by default, and their status remains unchanged until the agent exercises their freedom to deem them not true, then should Descartes hold that we are any less responsible, and God any more responsible, for error or falsity?