April 27, 2024

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Descartes, Cudworth, and God

Ren. Cartefius, (though otherwise an Acute Philosopher) was here no less Childish, in affirming, that all things whatsoever, even the Natures of Good and Evil, and all Truth and Falsehood, do so depend upon the Arbitrary Will and Power of God, as that if he had pleased, Twice Two should not have been Four, nor the Three Angles of a Plain Triangle, Equal to Two Right ones, and the like...Than which, no Paradox of any old Philosopher, was ever more Absurd and Irrational: and certainly if any one did desire, to perswade the World, that Cartesius, notwithstanding all his pretences to Demontrate a Deity, was indeed but an Hypocritical Theist, or Personated and Disguised Atheist, he could not have a fairer pretence for it out of all his Writings, than from hence.

Ralph Cudworth, True Intellectual System, p. 646

Unmasking 'clandestine atheism' was a common 17th century pastime. There's nothing unusual about Cudworth engaging in it (he makes a detailed case for Hobbes's alleged atheism, for instance), and there's nothing unusual about Descartes being a target. Cudworth's 'if' does not state a mere hypothetical—there were those who desired, "to perswade the World, that Cartesius...was...[a] Disguised Atheist." What is interesting, and perhaps surprising, is that Cudworth (who, to be clear, does not seem really to have thought Descartes was an atheist) says that the 'fairest pretence' for calling Descartes an atheist is Descartes's doctrine of the creation of the eternal truths.

This is surprising, first, because this is not the reason most commonly given in the period and, second, because the creation of the eternal truths seems at least in part designed to shield Descartes from such accusations.

In Principles of Philosophy 3.45ff, Descartes says that, in order to understand how the cosmos works, he will begin from a hypothesis which is false and contrary to the Christian faith, namely, that the world originally consisted of a uniform fluid of particles of a single kind and size, in circular motion. He claims that, by the laws of his physics, the orderly and diverse universe we observe will arise from this hypothesis, without special divine intervention. Many readers thought that, despite his protestations to the contrary, this was Descartes's real view. Further, although Descartes says that God must create and sustain the total quantity of motion in the universe, it was widely thought that this made any kind of divine intention or design impossible.

One might have thought (as, in fact, Leibniz did) that theism could be rescued if God designed the laws such that they inevitably give rise to order, complexity, beauty, etc. But in Principles 2, Descartes had claimed to derive the laws from truths of geometry together with the basic attributes of God (mostly, immutability). Since geometry is necessary and the attributes of God are necessary, it does not appear that God has any choice about the laws. Thus, a certain line of interpretation would see Spinoza as simply laying bare what Descartes has tried to conceal: that God does not act for ends or purposes, is not in any sense a designer or a ruler, and that all things follow from the necessity of the divine nature.

Descartes, however, has an answer. Although geometry is, in a sense, necessary, it is necessary only because God so decreed, and God could have decreed differently. Thus, although the laws of physics are every bit as necessary as any mathematical proposition, God could have made different laws of physics. Thus, the creation of the eternal truths was likely meant, at least in part, to save Descartes from the charge of atheism by showing that his God chooses among multiple genuinely open alternatives.

Cudworth, however, is not convinced. In addition to the fact that this voluntarist view is nonsense on stilts, it is actually a greater threat to theism than Descartes's views in physics and cosmology.

Cudworth's claim about Descartes is less surprising if you've read the preceding 645 pages of his book. (Great book, could've been shorter!) One of Cudworth's main aims in the True Intellectual System is to produce a taxonomy of atheistic philosophies that will allow for a precise demarcation between atheism and theism. Cudworth draws the distinction as follows:

they...are strictly and properly called Theists, who affirm that a Perfectly Conscious Understanding Being, or Mind, existing of it self from Eternity, was the Cause of all other things; and they on the contrary who derive all things from Sensless Matter, as the First Original, and deny that there is any Conscious Understanding Being Self-Existent and Unmade, are those that are properly called Atheists. (195)

Cudworth is aware that these are not logically exhaustive statements (one is not the mere denial of the other), but argues over the course of hundreds of pages that every philosophical system is, and must be, committed to one or the other.

Crucially, for Cudworth, a mind is a being that acts for reasons, for the sake of the good. And this is where Descartes's voluntarism leads to disaster. A God who is "so Omnipotent and Infinitely Powerful that he is able to Destroy, or to Baffle and Befool his own Wisdom and Understanding" by altering "the Intelligible Natures of things" (647) is not really a conscious understanding being at all, and therefore not a God. A genuine God must act on the basis of knowledge of the good.

Descartes, indeed, should've known something was amiss here, for Descartes famously argues in the Meditations that "freedom of indifference" is the lowest grade of freedom, and that we are most free when our choices are determined by the overwhelming force of the reasons we see. But Descartes's God cannot have this highest grade of freedom, since there are no reasons prior to the decrees by which God creates the eternal truths.

(Interestingly, this is a kind of inversion of a view one finds in some theistic analytic philosophers, like Richard Swinburne. Swinburne holds that 'morally significant freedom'—i.e., undetermined choices between morally good actions and morally bad actions—is a very valuable type of freedom for humans, but not had by God. Descartes, on the other hand, seems to think the best kind of freedom for humans is a kind of freedom that's compatible with determinism, but it's good for God to have a libertarian freedom to act arbitrarily. And yet, he still seems to think that humans sometimes have a lower grade of freedom that's incompatible with determinism.)

And this brings us back to why Cudworth thinks creation of the eternal truths is actually a better reason for suspecting Descartes of clandestine atheism than the usual one. On Cudworth's view it is not central to theism that God chooses between multiple genuinely open alternatives, for God's choice may be determined by God's knowledge of the good. Thus, the view of ibn Sina (and, on Griffin's interpretation, Leibniz) that all things follow necessarily from God's knowledge of the good is, on Cudworth's account, a genuine form of theism. (The need for attention to reasons why certain states of affairs are impossible has been a theme in my own work.) Further, even holding, as ibn Sina apparently also does, that the universe is eternal should be no impediment to theism on Cudworth's view either. Thus, on Cudworth's view, Descartes (like many of his detractors) has misidentified the problem with his views about physics and cosmology. The problem is not that there is no other world God might possibly choose. It's that God's creation of this world is not an instance of acting for the sake of the good. But the creation of the eternal truths is no help at all with this problem.

Posted by Kenny at April 27, 2024 8:49 AM
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