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’s Analogy between Material Bodies and Human Action

In A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume draws strong similarities between the causal interactions of material bodies and the connections between human actions and their motives. Hume emphasizes that reason “detects” the necessary causal connections between objects in both cases in the same way. Moreover, Hume tells us that the necessity of the connection between a purported cause and effect consists merely in their “constant union” and in “the inference of the mind” which arises from our observation of this union (2.3.1, Par. 4). After Hume’s discussion of how this works in the case of external bodies, he tells us that he also wishes to show that this story also holds between our actions and our motives. Hume tells us that:

…in judging of the actions of men we must proceed upon the same maxims, as when we reason concerning external objects. When any phaenomena are constantly and invariably conjoin’d together, they acquire such a connexion in the imagination, that it passes from one to the other, without any doubt or hesitation. (2.3.1, Par. 12)

While Hume is keen to draw this similarity between our reasoning about nature and our reasoning about human action, I find it difficult to see how Hume can get to the strong conclusions he wishes to derive concerning moral responsibility given what he admits in the case of our knowledge of material bodies. Hume seems to admit that our understanding of them is importantly limited. Hume writes that:

…[i]t has been observ’d already, that in no single instance the ultimate connexion of any objects is discoverable, either by our sense or reason, and that we can never penetrate so far into the essence and construction of bodies, as to perceive the principle, on which their mutual influence depends. ‘Tis their constant union alone, with which we are acquainted; and ‘tis from the constant union the necessity arises. (2.3.1, Par. 4)

Here, it seems that Hume is admitting that while we have the idea of a necessary connection between material causes and effects, we will never truly know the nature of the “ultimate connexion” between them. It would seem, then, that Hume ought to apply this epistemic modesty to claims concerning our knowledge of the “ultimate connexion” between human actions and motivations. Given that reason detects connections amongst these types of “objects” in the same way, our  knowledge in both cases should, presumably, be of the same kind.

In the Enquiry Conerning Human Understanding, however, Hume seems to treat our knowledge of such a connection with respect to actions and motives as privileged in some respect. Hume tells us that one may try to counter his particular treatment of the necessary connection between actions and motives by challenging his treatment of that between material bodies. One could maintain, Hume suggests, that it’s “possible to discover something farther in the operations of matter.” However, Hume provides a response to this possible strategy by arguing that the truth of this claim:

…can be of no consequence to morality or religion, whatever it may be to natural philosophy or metaphysics. We may here be mistaken in asserting, that there is no idea of any other necessity or connexion in the actions of body: but surely we ascribe nothing to the actions of the mind, but what every one does, and must readily allow of. We change no circumstance in the received orthodox system with regard to the will, but only in that with regard to material objects and causes. (8.2, Par. 27)

I guess I have two issues with how Hume seems to counter this possible response to his theory of the causal relations amongst actions and motives. The first is with his seeming to draw a distinction between “natural philosophy or metaphysics” and morality, and the second is his failure to acknowledge that one could also try to counter his treatment of necessity by supposing that it is possible to discover something further about the workings of the operations of the human mind, or will.

In the first case it seems that Hume relies fairly heavily on the type of “necessary connection” between material bodies in order to make his point concerning the connection between action and motivation. It seems odd that Hume would, at this point, pull apart one’s theorizing about nature from one’s theorizing about human nature and action. Moreover, in the second case, it seems that Hume does not take seriously the possibility that we might discover something further about the operations of the human mind, something that may undermine the justifiability of our inference from a person’s actions to their motivations or character. Given Hume’s epistemic modesty with respect to the essence of material bodies and the real connections between them, it seems that Hume ought to exercise the same type of modesty in the case of the relation between actions and motives, and recognize the possibility of such a discovery and its  posing a threat to his theory of moral responsibility.

Reid on Hume

In his Essays on the Active Powers of Man, Reid calls into question Hume’s treatment of the concept of cause. Reid points to Hume’s theory as being one that denies that we have a conception of an efficient cause. After providing his own account of Hume’s definition of causal necessity as constant conjunction, Reid criticizes Hume’s theory on the grounds that . Reid writes:

But theory ought to stoop to fact, and not fact to theory. Every man who understands the language knows, that neither priority, nor constant conjunction, nor both taken together, imply efficiency…The very dispute, whether we have the conception of an efficient cause, shows that we have. For though men may dispute about things which have no existence, they cannot dispute about things of which they have no conception. (IV.2, p. 279)

According to Reid, the notion of efficiency is closely tied to “the exertion of an active power” (IV.2, p. 276). This active power serves as a cause to produce an effect. Reid tells us that we are, from an early age, aware of the fact that we possess this active power and that it is through our possessing this power that we are the causes of our voluntary actions. I find it interesting that Reid takes his theory, unlike Hume’s, to be one that “stoops to fact”. Indeed, there appears to be something to Reid’s criticism, that is, it does seem to be the case that the notion of constant conjunction does not logically imply efficiency. However, it seems that Reid may be missing an important aspect of Hume’s theory of necessity and his approach to how one is to provide definitions to the terms one uses to theorize.

I take it that in response to Reid’s criticism Hume could counter by claiming that it is Reid that does not remain faithful to the facts. For Hume, the existence of a necessary causal relation amongst objects does not arise merely from two objects being constantly conjoined in a certain temporal order, it also importantly involves the inference of the mind, i.e. the mind’s passing from one object to the other, from which we “infer the existence of one from that of the other”. (Treatise 2.3.1, Par. 4) Hume’s response to Reid might involve his pointing to the fact that, indeed, we do appear to have a conception of an “efficient cause”. And, it seems that we use this notion in our theorizing. However, upon closer examination, we are to see that if we carefully attend to our use of the terms ‘necessity’, ‘efficiency’, or ‘causality’, the meaning of these terms ultimately reduces to the circumstances upons which we employ them, i.e our observance of the constant conjunction of objects and the inference of the mind.

Thus, contrary to Reid’s suggestion, Hume does not think that we fail to have actual “conceptions” of these terms; Hume merely thinks that their meaning must have some content that is readily accessible to us in experience. And so, while Reid takes his theory to remain faithful to the “facts”, it remains to be seen what Reid takes these facts to be. If the facts are simply that we use notions like ‘necessity’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘causality’ in our theorizing, then he is in agreement with Hume. However, Hume would likely respond to this criticism by claiming that it is Reid’s theory that does not “stoop to the facts” given that Hume’s theory actually seems better supported by the facts at hand.

Alanen’s Descartes: Is the Liberty of Indifference Essential to Acts of the Will?

Lilli Alanen, in “The Role of Will in Descartes’ Account of Judgment”, argues for a distinction between two different notions of indifference in Descartes’s theorizing about freedom of the will. The first notion, indifference (AR), can be understood as the absence of determining reasons, reasons which make the will prefer one perceived good over another. The second notion, indifference (SD), can be understood as a two-way power, or the will’s ability to determine itself otherwise. According to Alanen, the second notion of indifference is essential to human freedom for Descartes.

I wonder, however, how Alanen’s reading and readings similar to it, mesh with the following passage in the controversial letter (supposedly) written to Mesland:

But freedom considered in the acts of the will at the moment when they are elicited does not entail any indifference taken in either the first [indifference (AR)] or the second [indifference (SD)] sense; for what is done cannot remain undone as long as it is being done. It [i.e. freedom in the acts of the will] consists simply in ease of operation; and at that point freedom, spontaneity and voluntariness are the same thing. It was in this sense that I wrote that I moved towards something all the more freely when there were more reasons driving me towards it; for it is certain that in that case our will moves itself with greater facility and force. (CSMK 246; emphasis added)

The first and second “senses” of indifference are the two sorts of indifference Alanen distinguishes between. While Alanen takes indifference (SD) to be essential to human freedom for Descartes, Descartes explicitly states in this passage that “freedom considered in the acts of the will” does not entail either of the two types of indifference. Given that Descartes writes this, I wonder how those who read Descartes as identifying freedom of the will with the liberty of indifference might overcome the difficulty this passage appears to pose for them. I find readings like Alanen’s puzzling, but I’m still having difficulty articulating what the precise nature of the puzzle is. If Alanen is right to think that, for Descartes, the ability to do otherwise is what is essential to freedom of the will, how are we to understand Descartes’s claim in the above cited passage that despite the will’s inability to do otherwise, it remains free in its acts?

What also seems pressing is how readings like Alanen’s could provide a principled account of Descartes’s thoughts on the nature of an act of the will which involves its determination to (or beliefs in) clear and distinct perceptions. How would a property identified as a two-way power explain the greater degree of freedom Descartes claims to enjoy in these kinds of beliefs? Are these beliefs more free because the will experiences a greater two-way power with respect to them?

Schmaltz’s Descartes: Degrees of Freedom and Efficient Causation

Tad Schmaltz suggests that we understand Descartes’s conception of the relation between the will and the intellect, at least in the Fourth Meditation, in Suarezian terms. This reading requires that we understand the intellect as determining the will, not as an efficient cause, but as a final cause which merely “instructs” the will to determine itself in a particular way. Schmaltz explains that on this view, “cognition is merely a necessary condition for an appetitive act directed toward the cognized object, and that this faculty rather than the cognition itself is the efficient cause of the act.” (Schmaltz 197) Schmaltz further tells us that it is the liberty of spontaneity (i.e. the will’s not being determined by an external force) as opposed to the liberty of indifference (i.e. the will’s having the ability to do otherwise, or possessing a two-way power), that is fundamental to human freedom for Descartes. Moreover, the liberty of spontaneity is spelled out in terms of the will’s always being the “source” or “efficient” cause of its acts.

I am sympathetic to these features of Schmaltz’s interpretation of Descartes on human freedom. However, it seems that it faces an immediate difficulty. The difficulty involves the ability of Schmaltz’s reading to explain Descartes’ recognition of varying degrees of freedom. It is clear that Descartes recognizes varying degrees of freedom in the Fourth Meditation when he writes:

In order to be free, there is no need for me to be inclined both ways; on the contrary, the more I incline in one direction – either because I clearly understand that reasons of truth and goodness point that way, or because of a divinely produced disposition of my inmost thoughts – the freer is my choice. Neither divine grace nor natural knowledge ever diminishes freedom; on the contrary, they increase and strengthen it. (CSM 2: 40)

Schmaltz tells us that, for Descartes, the spontaneity of the will’s acts consists in its self-determination (that is, its being free from any determination external to it, including the intellect), and that this type of determination is to be spelled out in terms of the will’s being an efficient cause of its acts. But if all (non-coerced) acts of the will are self-determined, then it seems that all acts of the will are each equally subject to the will’s causal efficacy. If the causal efficacy of the will with respect to its acts is the only feature that makes an act of will spontaneous (or free), how does Schmaltz propose to give a principled explanation of Descartes’s recognition of varying degrees of human freedom?

 

What work is deliberation doing?

Hume makes what strikes me as two separate claims regarding when it is appropriate for us to hold someone morally accountable for their actions. The first is when the action is caused by something “in the character and disposition of the person who performed them” (EHU 8.29). The reason is that the character of the individual is “durable and constant” (Ibid.). If this is not the case then we cannot blame or praise the individual because the action is not caused by something lasting in them.

Hume also remarks that we do not blame or praise individuals when their actions are done in haste and without deliberation. He writes,

Men are not blamed for such actions, as they perform and casually, whatever may be the consequences. Why? but because the principles of these actions are only momentary, and terminate in them alone. Men are less blamed for such actions as they perform hastily and unpremeditately, than for such as proceed from deliberation (8.30).

Here too the contrast is between something that is constant and something that is temporary. However, it is not immediately clear that deliberating about an action is tied directly to possessing a particular character. I wonder what (or maybe, if there is a) relation Hume intends there to be between character and the act of deliberating.

It could be that deliberation is a necessary condition on actions for which we hold the agent morally responsible. If one never deliberated, then there would be no consistent motive which caused the action. The mere act of deliberating provides an opportunity for one’s character to cause the action rather than a fleeting passion. However, this threatens to weaken the notion of a character being durable motive of an agent’s actions. If the agent’s character requires the agent to deliberate then in what sense is it something which reliably causes the agent’s action? It seems more appropriate to attribute the consistency to the agents ability to think about and act in accordance with a particular motivation. But this seems to run contrary to Hume’s claim that reason requires motivation to cause an action. In the Treatise he writes that “reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will” (2.3.3.1). I take this to imply that passion is explanatorily prior to deliberation. But if in the absence of deliberation one’s character is unreliable in causing actions, then it appears that deliberation is explanatorily prior.

It may be that there is an important distinction between reason being the cause of an action and the act of deliberation that makes the second option unproblematic. Or perhaps the notion of character is more closely tied to that of character than deliberation simply being a necessary condition for character to cause an action.

Free Will & The Pragmatic Maxim

My conference paper compares the arguments of David Hume and William James on the question of determinism. One thing that I didn’t have space to address in the paper is the role that pragmatism plays in James’s argument for indeterminism. I think it might be fun to puzzle through one aspect of that topic for this discussion post.

At the core of the pragmatic school of thought is the Pragmatic Maxim, which is primarily a method for getting clear on tough concepts. I’ll quote James’s statement of the maxim at length, only because it is so succinct and beautifully written:

“[t]o develop a thought’s meaning, we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct is for us its sole significance. And the tangible fact at the root of all our thought-distinctions, however subtle, is that there is no one of them so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice. To attain perfect clearness in our thoughts of an object, then, we need only consider what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve – what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare. Our conception of these effects, whether immediate or remote, is then for us the whole of our conception of the object, so far as that conception has positive significance at all” (Pragmatism, Lecture II).

James applies the pragmatic maxim to the concept of free will, and his conclusion is that the only practical effect of free will actually existing would be the promise of moral improvement in the world. In other words, the only practical difference between a deterministic world and a world filled with free will (for James, compatibilism is not a live option, for it amounts to a “quagmire of evasion”) is that in the latter we have genuine opportunities for making moral progress. Thus he calls free will a “melioristic” doctrine, “which has for its sole meaning a better promise as to this world’s outcome” (ibid., Lecture IV).

This has always struck me as a strange conclusion to draw, for it seems possible to draw precisely the opposite conclusion – namely, that the only practical effect of having free will would be the promise for a vicious world. If for some reason humans sought to do evil deeds with their free will, then moral deterioration, rather than moral progress, would inevitably result. So it appears that James has running in the background the tacit assumption that humans for the most part have virtuous natures and inclinations. I don’t necessarily disagree with this, but it strikes me nonetheless as a maximally tenuous claim.

I’ve always wondered why James didn’t simply conclude that the concept of free will fails to pass the pragmatic maxim, in the same way that the concepts of substance and truth-as-correspondence fail. Perhaps the answer has something to do with James’s incorrigibly cheerful temperament.