Descartes on Divine Freedom

Descartes writes that God enjoys “supreme indifference” and that this indifference “belongs to Divine freedom” (Sixth Replies, AT VII, 432f.). It is quite clear from Descartes’s writings that he also believes that Divine freedom requires liberty of indifference. He writes that it is “self-contradictory to suppose that the will of God was not indifferent from eternity with respect to everything which has happened or will ever happen” (Sixth Replies, AT VII, 431).

In the passage of the Fourth Meditation in which he defines freedom, Descartes is concerned to describe a similarity between Divine and human freedom. He writes that “God’s will… does not seem any greater than mine when considered as will in the essential and strict sense” (Meditation IV, AT VII, 57).

Liberty of indifference can be given two glosses. First, liberty of indifference can consist in what Ragland calls multi-directional motivation (2006, 382). The idea is that one enjoys multi-directional freedom of indifference with respect to an action iff she recognizes equally weighty reasons to do something or not to do it. A second form of liberty of indifference is what Ragland calls non-motivational. The idea here is that one enjoys non-motivational liberty of indifference with respect to an action iff she recognizes no reasons at all to do or not to do some action (382).

There is direct textual evidence that Descartes recognizes this distinction. First, Descartes explicitly recognizes liberty of multi-directional motivational indifference. He writes that sometimes liberty of indifference occurs when “we recognize many reasons pro but as many reasons contra” (To [Mesland?] 02/09/1645, 174). Secondly, Descartes explicitly recognizes liberty of non-motivational indifference when he writes of God that “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” (Sixth Replies, 432). The idea, to be developed below, is that God has no reasons, prior to His willings, to do anything. So God cannot recognize any reasons prior to His willings to will this or that.

Descartes also writes about what appears to be a type of liberty distinct from both forms of liberty of indifference. He writes that this liberty consists in our intellect’s “put[ting] something forward for affirmation or denial… [and] our inclinations are such that we do not feel determined by any external force” (Meditation IV, AT VII, 57). This has been identified with liberty of spontaneity. x enjoys liberty of spontaneity with respect to an action iff x’s intellect puts forward that action to x’s will and x performs that action without being forced to do so by any external factor.

But what sort of indifference does God enjoy according to Descartes? To answer this question, it will be helpful to focus on how God exercises this freedom. God is necessarily indifferent, according to Descartes (Sixth Replies, AT VII, 432). If God were not indifferent, then it would be the case that God would will something because His intellect judges it to be good or true. But nothing is good or true prior to God’s willing it to be good or true: “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” (Sixth Replies, AT VII, 432).

Descartes holds that moral, modal, and alethic properties ultimately depend on God. With this is mind, suppose that God’s willing to perform some action was determined because that action is good. Then that action would have to have its properties independently of God’s willing that that action is good. But that contradicts the claim that an action’s moral, modal, and alethic properties ultimately depend on God. So we must reject the claim that God’s will could be determined by the properties of its objects. Its objects have no such properties prior to being objects of His will and His willing that they should have those properties.

Since God’s intellect and will are identical, it cannot be the case that His intellect judges some action as good and then advances that action to the will as a good action to perform. This implies God enjoys liberty of non-motivational indifference. Recall that liberty of non-motivational indifference requires that an agent recognize no reasons for or against performing a particular action. First, God’s intellect and will are identical. Liberty of non-motivational indifference does not require an act of intellect putting forward a potential action as good. Secondly, if God’s willings are responsible for, say, the moral properties of actions, it is trivially the case for God that He can only be in a state of non-motivational indifference given that potential reasons’ being reason-giving in virtue of their being a good thing to do, for example, requires an antecedent act on His part, viz. His willing that it is good.

God’s freedom, meanwhile, cannot consist in spontaneity. Descartes writes that such a liberty consists in our being carried toward what the intellect proposes as good without any external determination (CSM II.40). Thus, spontaneity involves two things in Descartes’s writings. First, it involves one’s being carried toward what the intellect judges as being good or true. Secondly, it involves absence of external determination.

As we saw above, Descartes holds that God’s willing an action makes it good, for example, and that that action is not good prior to God’s willing it. If spontaneity requires the intellect’s having judged an action to be good prior to presenting it to the will and the absence of external determination, and God’s willing it to be good is what makes the action good, then God’s freedom cannot consist in spontaneity. God’s willing clearly does not require the intellect’s having judged an action to be good prior to presenting it to the will. The problem is that God’s having liberty of spontaneity would require that potential actions have moral characteristics prior to God’s willing them. And that, we saw, is inconsistent with the dependence of moral, modal, and alethic properties’ being dependent on God’s willings.

So God’s freedom cannot consist in either liberty of multi-directional indifference or liberty of spontaneity. Instead, it consists in liberty of non-motivational indifference.

– Evan Woods

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *