Monday, June 30, 2008

Cartesian voluntarism

I'm back from a short trip to Los Angeles, and now for a quick blog entry...

Descartes is delightfully notorious for so many things.

One of those things is a deep, divine voluntarism not just about the good but also about the true. In particular, he is a voluntarist about modal truths.

One way to make this sound less crazy (and perhaps even be less crazy, if true) is to domesticate what is happening when one asserts modal claims.

According to Descartes, a modal claim asserts what is or is not understandable or consistently statable within the limitations of human conception.

To say of P that it is impossible is to say that no person whose cognitive processes are efficiently at work can place P within her noetic structure without running into a contradiction. Notice that the only thing that this strictly entails is that P is not thinkable by persons with the aforementioned cognitive faculties.

The obvious question asks why it’s unthinkable.

Descartes’ answer is that God made persons with those cognitive faculties and their limitations. In that respect, God is the author of modal truths (since modal truths are actually just statements about what can and cannot be conceived — viz., statements about intellectual limitations of properly functioning cognizers).

An obvious answer to the why question that Descartes rejects is that we have some special criterial insight into the nature of what is really possible and impossible by means of our conceivability.

This helps to explain why Descartes would say of God that he could have made it the case that 2 and 2 equal 5 and that God does not have to trouble himself with modal truths in his own understanding.

This doesn’t really line up well with Descartes a priori argument for the existence of God in the Meditations, partly because his voluntarism is muted in that work. Nevertheless, it’s an undeniable chunk of his philosophy and well attested in his correspondence, even if it imports some inconsistency into his overall system.

Here’s a sample written to Arnauld:

“I do not think we should ever say of anything that it cannot be brought about by God. For since every basis of truth and goodness depends on his omnipotence, I would not venture to say that God cannot make an uphill without a downhill, or that one and two should not be three. But I merely say that he has given me such a mind that I cannot conceive an uphill without a downhill, or a sum of one and two which is not three, and that such things involve a contradiction in my conception (CSMK 358-9).”

Does this make Descartes a modal skeptic? I’m not sure how to answer that question, but his modal reasoning is certainly more intriguing and problematic when seen in this light.

Once again, special care paid to these early modern philosophers explodes such platitudes attributed to them such as “conceivability is a test for possibility.”

1 comment:

Cartesian said...

As a Cartesian philosopher I should write that I do agree with your post.