Descartes And the Metaphysics of Human Nature by Justin Skirry (Continuum Studies in Philosophy: Continuum International Publishing) The traditional account of mind/body union attributed to Descartes supposes that the immaterial, thinking mind and the material, non-thinking body interact by means of efficient causation. But this gives rise to a notorious philosophical problem: how can this causal interaction occur between the spiritual mind and the physical body since they have absolutely nothing in common and cannot come into contact with one another? Justin Skirry's book shows how Descartes in fact avoids this enormous problem. Skirry argues, through a critical re-examination of Cartesian metaphysics, that the union of mind and body is not, as most scholars have always maintained, constituted by efficient causal interaction for Descartes, because this would result not in one, complete human nature but in an aggregate of two numerically distinct natures.
In fact, Descartes argues in the 6th Meditation and elsewhere that mind/body union is constituted by what the scholastics called a `substantial union', i.e. the union that form (mind) has with matter (body). This substantial union produces a whole that is more than the sum of its parts; the capacity for modes of sensation and voluntary bodily movement are emergent properties of the whole, substantially united mind and body. Therefore, the `Cartesian' problem of mindbody efficient causal interaction is avoided altogether, since efficient causal occurrences between mind and body play no role in explaining the existence of these modes.
Excerpt: Vere Chappell makes a distinction between hard and soft varieties of dualism and unionism.' Although it is impossible for both hard dualism and hard unionism to be true, since mind and body cannot be both actually two things and actually one, it is possible for both hard dualism and soft unionism or soft dualism and hard unionism to be true. Most scholars maintain that Descartes's theory of mind and body commits him to hard dualism and soft unionism. On this account, mind and body are two things that actually exist apart, i.e. hard dualism, but they are united into a human being in a soft sense, for otherwise mind and body would not be two but one. But, soft dualism is also consistent with hard unionism. On this account, mind and body are distinct in a weak sense, while they are united in a strong or hard sense to make one, whole human being. This would mean that mind and body are actually united to form one thing but are potentially two. This book defends a version of this latter thesis.
This book argues that the nature of Descartes's human being is the result of the mind's per se unity with a properly disposed human body. This means that Descartes maintained a fundamentally hylomorphic theory of mindbody union roughly in line with his scholastic predecessors and contemporaries. This kind of unity results in something that is actually one but potentially two, i.e. soft dualism/hard unionism. But, the hard dualism/soft unionism thesis has the most currency among scholars and is the traditional understanding of Descartes's metaphysics of human nature accepted by just about any philosopher who has taught the Meditations in an introductory level course. The first three chapters of this book are intended to lay to rest certain misunderstandings about Descartes's basic metaphysical commitments that give rise to this widely accepted, but mistaken, view.
For instance, several scholars maintain that Descartes's human being cannot be a substance since it depends on mind and body for its existence. Chapter 1 closely examines Descartes's definition of substance and its conceptual relations with its scholastic counterpart in response to this concern. This chapter shows that scholastic substances are composites of a substantial form united per se with matter so as to make one, complete substantial or self-subsisting nature in a given species. Then Descartes's definition of substance is established as primarily a self-subsisting being and secondarily as a subject of accidents as with the scholastic doctrine. One important result is that the kind of ontological independence required for being a created Cartesian substance just is non-inherence in some other thing. But, the dependence of something on its essential parts does not exclude it from the category of substance. Another important result is that Descartes's doctrine differs from the scholastic's in that a complete substance need not be a composite of form and matter. Hence, a scholastic substance is also a Cartesian substance but not the other way around.
Another misunderstanding stems from Descartes's claim that the two ultimate kinds of substance have one principal attribute each. Many take this to mean that a Cartesian substance can have one and only one principal attribute. Chapter 2 helps make metaphysical room for a Cartesian substance with both principal attributes, viz a human being, by examining Descartes's doctrine of attributes through their conceptual distinction. It is established that, contrary to current scholarship, the distinction among attributes is not a product of the mind's activity but is discovered in re. In effect, Descartes's conceptual distinction just is Scotus' formal distinction understood as a rational distinction ratiocinatae, or a rational distinction of 'reasoned reason'. Hence, every substance is composed of the attributes of being, order, duration and number. Since every substance is composed of a plurality of attributes, there is metaphysical space for a substance composed of both principal attributes. Along the way the distinction between formal identity (i.e. an identification of definition or essence) and real identity (i.e. an identification within a definition or essence) is established and is eventually used to make sense of Descartes's distinction between a unity of essence and a unity of composition in Chapter 6.
Two other difficulties arise due to Descartes's metaphysics of body in general and the human body in particular. One is that most scholars believe that particular Cartesian bodies are not substances themselves but modes of the one extended substance that is the entire physical universe. But, if this were true, then the body would be united to the mind as a mode is united with its underlying substance and not to makeone, whole substance. The other difficulty is that Descartes's claim that the essence or nature of body is nothing but extension has led some to argue that the mind would have to be the form of the human body for Descartes, if his theory is hylomorphic, because he cannot have recourse to a substantial form of corporeity, as some of the scholastics did, given his rejection of substantial forms in physics. But, the mind or soul only has the faculties of intellect and will and, therefore, it cannot be the form of the body. Chapter 3 addresses both of these concerns. First, although the claim runs up against some difficulties with other aspects of Descartes's metaphysics, the evidence indicates that particular bodies are substances. Second, even though extension is the essence of the genus `body', the configuration and motion of a given part of that extension constitutes that species of body. So, a certain configuration and motion of parts results in a cow body, whereas another results in a human body, which, strictly speaking, must have a disposition for union with the mind. Descartes's rejection of substantial forms is also examined in order to elucidate certain aspects of his metaphysics of body as well as provide the groundwork for the claim made in Chapter 5 that the Cartesian mind is the substantial form of human being.
The remaining three chapters specifically address the theory of mindbody union. Chapter 4 reconstructs and evaluates Descartes's argument for the union of mind and body found in the Sixth Meditation. It shows that this is in fact an argument for their per se unity into a true human nature and against any theory maintaining they are united per accidens. Chapter 5 explicates how this per se unity works within Descartes's metaphysics. Here it is argued that (1) the mind is the substantial form of human being, (2) mind and a properly disposed human body are two incomplete substances in a particularly Cartesian sense, and (3) these two incomplete substances unite per se to form one, whole and complete human nature in a Scotistic or Ockhamistic fashion. Finally, Chapter 6 examines Descartes's other remarks on composite natures and how this strong unionism account avoids the traditional problem of mindbody causal interaction.
However, before moving on to the main text, it is important to address one last, but quite important, impediment to the soft dualism/hard unionism view offered here. This is the issue of Descartes's sincerity. Many commentators take Descartes's use of scholastic language as a veil for his real views. Indeed, this assumption underlies Gilson's famous dictum of how Descartes practises the art of putting 'new wine in old bottles'.' Henri Gouhier goes so far as to say that 'what Descartes retains from scholastic philosophy is precisely what is not philosophical'. In more recent scholarship, David Yandell has argued that Descartes probably unpacks the notion of 'substantial union' in terms of efficient causal interaction and not in the traditional sense of a union of a substantial form with matter.' Rozemond also goes through great pains to dismiss Descartes's use of scholastic language based on what she takes to be inconsistencies between their traditional meaning and other aspects of Descartes's metaphysics. This, of course, implies that Descartes is being disingenuous in his use of scholastic terminology.
Of course, these examples do not exhaust the vast prejudice among scholars that Descartes is being dishonest under these circumstances. Yet, no one really argues for this thesis. One possible reason lies with Descartes's famous decision not to publish The World in light of Galileo's house arrest. Hence, it might seem that Descartes was fearful of being persecuted for his views. Although this may have been true in the early 1630s, he seems to have regained his courage in the late 1630s and 1640s. For all of the main theses put forth in The World, such as providing scientific explanations without recourse to substantial forms, real qualities, or prime matter, eventually see the light of day in his more mature works: the Discourse on Method, the Meditations and the Principles. Indeed, in a 13 March 1641 letter to Mersenne, Descartes claims that those who condemned Galileo are 'people who confound Aristotle with the Bible and abuse the authority of the Church':
They would have my views condemned likewise if they had the power; but if there is ever any question of that, I am confident I can show that none of the tenets of their philosophy accords with the Faith so well as my doctrines. (AT III 349-50: CSMK 177)
So, even though some may want to condemn his views, they do not have the power to do so and, moreover, Descartes is confident that his philosophy is more in accordance with the Catholic faith than the Aristotelian philosophy practised in the schools. Therefore, whatever trepidation Descartes felt at the time he suppressed The World is replaced by a new confidence in his own philosophy and personal safety by 1641.
Descartes's use of scholastic language to describe the union of mind and body should also be taken as sincere given his main philosophical concerns, viz to lay the foundation for his mechanistic physics:
These six Meditations contain all the foundations of my physics. But please do not tell people, for that might make it harder for supporters of Aristotle to approve them. I hope that readers will gradually get used to my principles, and recognize their truth, before they notice that they destroy the principles of Aristotle. (AT III 297-8: CSMK 173)
In this excerpt from a 28 January 1641 letter to Mersenne, Descartes states that the Meditations contain all the principles of his physics and implies that Aristotle, and not the Catholic Church, is his main opponent. This suggests that the underlying purpose of the Meditations is to lay a non-Aristotelian foundation for his mechanistic physics. As argued in Chapter 3, this entails a rejection of the use of substantial forms and real qualities in scientific explanations. This, in turn, makes way for efficient or mechanistic causal explanations without recourse to final or formal causal principles as Descartes understood the scholastic usage. So, his main agenda is to promote his mechanistic physics. Hence, it would make no sense for him to take issue with the scholastics on issues not bearing directly on this concern, viz the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the union of mind and body into one, whole complete human being.
This may raise the spectre of whether or not Descartes genuinely believed in these fundamental Catholic doctrines. But, although he was no saint, it is reasonable to suppose, at least without evidence to the contrary, that he was a typical Catholic layperson; he believed in the basic doctrines of the church even though he may not have lived by them every day of his life. Indeed, as mentioned above, Descartes thought his philosophy was more in accordance with Catholicism than the philosophy of Aristotle. So, these most obvious reasons for maintaining Descartes's insincerity for these matters just do not hold water.
It is rare, however, that anyone ever really argues that Descartes is being insincere. Strangely enough, most scholars maintaining Descartes's insincerity have assumed the burden of proof is on those wishing to take him sincerely to show that he is being sincere. But, the Principle of Charity dictates that a text should be taken as sincere unless good reasons are given for believing otherwise. Accordingly, the burden of proof is on those who wish to show Descartes insincere in his use of scholastic terminology.' Although an argument claiming a blanket insincerity is unlikely, not to mention useless, arguments for insincerity could be levelled on a passage-by-passage basis
To the dismay of many, Descartes was never very concerned about the problem of mindbody efficient causal interaction. His recourse to the notion of mindbody union has been taken by some to be an attempt to explain mindbody interaction to Elizabeth. This attempt has been largely found to be inadequate to the task. However, an examination of some of the remarks to Elizabeth and the discussion about invented natures and those that are true and immutable in the First Replies indicates that Descartes was not really interested in explaining mindbody efficient causal interaction but in getting his correspondent to understand mindbody union as it really is. Once this correct undertanding is reached, it becomes evident that the capacities for voluntary bodily movement and sensations are the propria of a whole composed of the mind, the body and their per se unity. This indicates further that these sorts of modes are to be referred to the whole, composite nature and not to any one of the parts taken individually. Accordingly, the problem of mindbody causal interaction conceived as a problem stemming from their efficient causal interaction is to misconceive and, therefore, to invent the nature of human being.
The union of mind and body ought to be conceived as a per se unity resulting from the union of the mind qua substantial form with a properly disposed human body. As such, the relation constituting this sort of unity is a formal causal relation. Hence, the problem of the efficient or mechanistic causal interaction of mind and body just does not arise for Descartes since this is not a correct understanding of the union relation. But, the question may still be posed: How can an immaterial substantial form act on the potency in an entirely extended thing (despite its 'proper' disposition for union)? This is still a problem of how mind and body causally interact but it is a problem of formal and not of efficient causation.
Unfortunately, Descartes never offers a response to this problem, because 'nobody explains what this [union] amounts to, and so you [Regius] need not do so either' (AT III 493: CSMK 206). That is, nobody had attempted to explain this real and substantial unity. The reason for this is found in the fact that the actpotency relation was considered fundamental and, therefore, it could not be defined." The philosophical lesson is twofold. First, as argued in Chapter 4, those endorsing the real distinction of mind and body ought to seek an argument for the substantial union of mind and body into one, whole substantial human nature. As such, mindbody distinction can be maintained without the problem of their efficient causal interaction. Second, both endorsers and critics should focus on the real problem, namely that of mindbody formal causal interaction, and stop spending time on the invented problem of how mind and body can efficiently causally interact.
Discourse on Method and Meditations by Ren Descartes (Dover) unabridged republication of Discourse on Method and Meditations from The Philosophical Works of Descartes, Cambridge University Press, 1931.
Is it possible to be certain of anything? If so, how? Ren Descartes (1596-1650), the father of modern philosophy and the founder of rational method in philosophical thought, sought the answers to these questions.
In Discourse on Method, Descartes rejects the limitations of tradition-al philosophy and theology in favor of the certainty of logic, geometry, and algebra. He proposes a method of thought that combines the rigor of mathematics with intuitive truths, taking a scientific approach comprising four principles: to accept only what reason recognizes as "clear and distinct"; to analyze complex ideas by dividing them into smaller elements; to reconstruct the ideas; and to make accurate and complete enumerations of the data.
Proceeding according to his own scientific method, Descartes attempts to prove two issues in the Meditations: First, that the mind, rather than the senses, is the true source of scientific knowledge; and second, that science and religion can be compatible. His inquiry into the mind/body distinctionwhereby science is assigned to the body and religious truths to the soul or mindexplores the nature of truth and error, the existence of God, and the essence of material things.
RENE DESCARTES: Meditations on First Philosophy with Selections from the Objections and Replies, translated and edited by John Cottingham with an introductory essay by Bernard Williams and a new introduction for this edition by John Cottingham, revised edition ($39.95, HARDCOVER, bibliography and index, Cambridge texts in the history of philosophy, Cambridge University Press, PAPERBACK)
By far the best available English translation of the fundamental philosophical text.
Excerpt from Bernard Williams Introductory Essay:
I would not urge anyone to read this book except those who are able and willing to meditate seriously with me, Descartes says to his readers in the Preface, and he makes it clear that he means the Meditations not to be a treatise, a mere exposition of philosophical reasons and conclusions, but rather an exercise in thinking, presented as an encouragement and a guide to readers who will think philosophically themselves. Its thoughts, correspondingly, are presented as they might be conducted by its author or rather, as though they were being conducted at the very moment at which you read them. Indeed, the I who is having these thoughts may be yourself. Although we are conscious, in reading the Meditations, that they were written by a particular person, Rene Descartes, and at a particular time, about 1640, the I that appears throughout them from the first sentence on does not specifically represent that person: it represents anyone who will step into the position it marks, the position of the thinker who is prepared to reconsider and recast his or her beliefs, as Descartes supposed we might, from the ground up.
This I is different, then, from the 1 that occurs in the Replies to the Objections. In the Replies, Descartes speaks straightforwardly for himself, and the I represents the author of the Meditations. The I in the Meditations themselves represents their narrator or protagonist, whom we may call the thinker .Of course the author has to take responsibility for the thinkers reflections. He takes responsibility both for the conduct of them and for their outcome, where that includes the beliefs to which we shall have been led if we are persuaded by the arguments, and also the improved states of mind that the author expects us to reach by following his work. But the author is not answerable for every notion entertained by the thinker and for every turn that the reflection takes on the way. The series of thoughts has an upshot or culmination, reached in the Sixth Meditation, and some of the thinkers earlier thoughts have been overcome and left behind in the process of reaching that final point.
Some of those who submitted the Objections found it hard to follow the working out of this idea, and to see how far the thinker had got at various points in the process of reflection. It is still hard today, and commentators discussions of the Meditations often take the form of asking how much at a given stage Descartes takes himself to have established. In such discussions, it is Descartes and his intentions that come into question; the modern objectors address themselves, if less directly than the objectors whose texts appear in this volume, to the author. It was, after all, Descartes who gave the thinker the directions he follows. There is a suggestion implicit in the beginning of the work that the thinker does not know how it will all turn out: but that is a fiction.
To say that it is a fiction is not necessarily to say that in terms of the work itself it is untrue. This might have been a work in which the thinkers fictional ignorance of how his reflections would turn out was convincingly sustained. To some extent it is so, and to that extent, one of the gifts offered to the reader by this extraordinary work is a freedom to write it differently, to set out with the thinker and end up in a different place. The rewriting of Descartes story in that way has constituted a good deal of modern philosophy.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that the Meditations offers no more than an invitation to philosophical reflection, by asking some questions and showing one way in which they might be answered. We are expected, rather, to sense the authors guiding hand throughout. Modern readers may take this for granted too easily, because they underestimate Descartes intention to engage the reader in the argument. They may think of the Meditations as just a device that Descartes chose to get across the opinions that we now find ascribed to him in histories of philosophy. It is, certainly, a device for convincing us, but it is more than that, because it aims to convince us by making us conduct the argument ourselves.
The first readers of the Meditations may have felt the authors guiding presence for a different reason, that they were conscious of a kind of writing that it resembled. It was, and remains, a very unusual work, and there had never been a work of philosophy presented in such a form before. But there did exist, familiarly, works of religious meditation, and Descartes book self-consciously resembles them. Like many of them, it is ostensibly divided between days of contemplation and, again like them, it encourages and helps the reader to overcome and get rid of misleading and seductive states of the soul, so as to arrive at an understanding of his or her own nature and of a created beings relations with God.
Those who wrote religious meditations were acting as guides to a spiritual discipline. Descartes work gives his readers guidance in an intellectual discipline, and helps them to discover in themselves pure intellectual conceptions of matter, of mind and of God from which they will be able to form a true and unclouded understanding of the world. The inquiry in which he leads them does indeed yield a conviction of the existence of God. There is no reason at all to suppose that Descartes was insincere in these religious affirmations. What is true is that the thoughts that lead to these conclusions are not in the least religious in spirit, and Gods existence is established as a purely metaphysical conclusion. Anything to do with a religious life or, indeed, with any distinctively religious aspects of life, will have to come in after Descartes reflections are over. The Meditations, though they have an analogy to traditional meditations that belong to the religious life, assuredly do not belong to it themselves.
A still greater difference lies in the authority with which the two kinds of works were offered. The authors of religious meditations claimed authority from their own experience, but also, most often, from a religious office. Descartes does not suppose that his right to claim a readers attention lies in any sacramental, traditional or professional position. His authority to show us how to think lies only in this, that he has himself, as he supposes, uncovered methods of simple, clearheaded and rational inquiry which all reasonable people can conduct if they clear their minds of prejudice and address themselves in a straightforward way to the questions. No special training, no religious discipline, no knowledge of texts or of history is needed in order to do this. He was disposed to think, in fact, that such things could be an actual obstacle.
His justification for believing that his readers had these powers, if only they could use them, is to be found in the Meditations themselves. If we follow Descartes to the end of them and accept his considerations, we shall have come to a conception of ourselves as rational, immaterial selves born with pure intellectual ideas and a capacity for reasoning which enable us to grasp in basic respects the nature of the world. Each of us does indeed exist in some kind of union with a particular physical body. My body, one says, and Descartes took this phrase to register a profound truth, that what one truly is, is a mind really distinct from the body. We need sensory information provided through the body not only to survive in the material world, but to find out particular scientific laws. But our own nature, the existence of God and indeed the most abstract structural features of the physical world itself can be discovered, Descartes supposed, by directed intelligence and rational insight.
Introductory essay by Bernard Williams
Note on the text and the translation
Meditations on First Philosophy
Dedicatory letter to the Sorbonne
Preface to the reader
Synopsis of the following six Meditations
First Meditation: What can be called into doubt
Second Meditation: The nature of the human mind, and how it is better known than the body
Third Meditation: The existence of God Fourth Meditation: Truth and falsity
Fifth Meditation: The essence of material things, and the existence of God considered a second time
Sixth Meditation: The existence of material things, and the real distinction between mind and body
Selections from the Objections and Replies:
On Meditation One The rejection of previous beliefs The reliability of the senses The dreaming argument Certainty in dreams
On Meditation Two Cogito ergo sum (I am thinking, therefore I exist) Sum res cogitans (I am a thinking thing) The nature of thought The piece of wax
On Meditation Three Innate ideas The idea of God Objective reality God, author of my existence
On Meditation Four The cause of error The indifference of the will
On Meditation Five Whether Gods essence implies his existence Clear and distinct perception and the Cartesian Circle
On Meditation Six The real distinction between mind and body
THE BREAKDOWN OF CARTESIAN METAPHYSICS by Richard A. Watson ($16.95, 256 pages, PAPERBACK ISBN 0872204065; $34.95 CLOTH Hackett Publishing, ISBN 0872204073, reissue of the Humanities Press Edition of 1987)
THE BREAKDOWN OF CARTESIAN METAPHYSICS combines historical research and philosophical analysis to cast light on why and how Cartesianism failed as a complete metaphysical system. Following an initial discussion of method in the history of philosophy is an analysis and criticism of late seventeenth century Cartesianism, two historical chapters on Cartesian theology and two analytic chapters on Cartesian metaphysics that demonstrate its logical inconsistency. Far more radical in its conclusions than his 1966 study The Downfall of Cartesianism (a slightly revised version of which forms the main body of the current work), Watson argues that Descartes ontology is incoherent and vacuous, his epistemology deceptive, and his theology unorthodox indeed, that "Descartes knows nothing".
Descartes philosophy was a product of the skeptical crisis that plagued intellectuals during the Reformation and post-Reformation period. As religious sectarianism proliferated and new scientific discoveries and theories undermined the Aristotelian world view, which had been in place for over two thousand years, many people found themselves intellectually adrift in a world that no longer seemed to offer any guidelines. If Copernicus was correct and the earth was not at the center of the universe but simply one planet among others, and if Galileos observations of sunspots, craters on the moon, and new planetary bodies were accurate, then the assumptions men had made for thousands of years about the world and their place in it were no longer valid. In the pre-Copernican, Aristotelian universe, the earth belonged to the sublunar realm of change and decay. In this realm matter and human passions had a corrupting influence, but human beings had a choice. They could follow their base, bodily instincts, living a brutal, sinful life that would lead to eternal damnation, or they could cultivate their spiritual and rational faculties and hope for everlasting life in the ethereal, unchanging heavens the logical place for Gods kingdom. In the new Copernican universe, however, the distinction between the perfect, unchanging heavens and the imperfect earth (whose very center provided the ideal location for hell) was obliterated and with it traditional Christian cosmology. The heavens now appeared to be as blemished and mutable as the earth. Where could heaven or hell possibly be in the Copernican universe?
Richard A. Watson is Professor of Philosophy, Washington University. he has also
written a study on the nature of philosophical humor: The
Philosopher's Joke: Essays in Form and Content (Prometheus Books)
This essential work is made up of eight interrelated essays grouped to elucidate two major themes: Descartes role in the dilemma of modern philosophy, and the relation of his thought to that of his contemporaries.
" .. . Grene has cut through the usual distinction between history of philosophy (with the emphasis on philosophy) and history of ideas (with the emphasis on history) and produced a book that is at the same time genuinely analytical and genuinely historical. Her sense of Descartes historical context and the full program in which he was involved allows her to ask the right questions of the texts and to provide illumination on the arguments that a less historical approach cannot. it stands out as a worthy and original contribution to the literature on Descartes in any language." Daniel Garber, University of Chicago
MARJORIE GRENE is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, University of California, Davis, and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Her A Philosophical Testament (Open Court Publishing)provides an overview of her career, from Grene's early interest in Kant, through a scrutiny of empiricism, an examination of "being-in-the-world" in the works of Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty, and an appraisal of Darwinism, a defense of realism, and an incorporation of theories of perception and symbolic anthropology.
DESCARTES ON GOD AND HUMAN ERROR by Joe Thomas Tierno ($49.95, hardcover, 144 pages, notes, bibliography, index; Humanities Press ISBN: 0-391-03986-5)
In this critical examination of Descartes' Fourth Meditation and the latter part of the Sixth Meditation, Joel Thomas Tierno has produced not only an interesting contribution to Cartesian scholarship, but also a groundbreaking work in theodicy. Although the recent literature on the problem of evil is vast, Tierno has persuadably demonstrated that the theodicean status of error have not as yet been considered adequately.
Descartes believed that erroneous judgments (mistaken acts of affirmation and denial) and errors of natural disposition (dispositions that emerge under certain conditions and incline us to act in ways that, in those conditions, are directly harmful to us) suggest, at first glance, serious theodicean difficulties.
Descartes' thought departs from the traditional view of evil. He believed that there are theodicean problems in the human domain other than the problem of moral evil. These problems pose serious difficulties for those who maintain the traditional Jewish and Christian conception of God. These difficulties arise as a result of the existence of certain forms of human error and create problems analogous to the problem produced by the existence of natural disasters in the natural (nonhuman) domain. Descartes was primarily concerned with two forms of human error, errors of judgment and errors of natural disposition.
In this essay Tierno focuses, first, on the theodicean problems these forms of error suggested to Descartes and the solutions that he offered to them. In addition, Tierno attempts to determine whether at least some instances of these forms of error actually do create serious theodicean problems for those who accept Descartes' conception of God.
What hangs in the balance is the traditional view of the origin of defects within the distinctively human realm, that is, the view that such defects result entirely from the intentional and free actions of human agents. If it can be established that among the many things existing in the universe there are human errors for which the agents involved do not bear the full measure of responsibility, then, as in the case of natural disasters, there exist defects in the creation that cannot be adequately understood without reference to the actions of God. If the human beings involved suffer a significant loss of dignity, knowledge, capability, utility, some other intrinsic value, or life itself, as a function of features of their received nature and/or received circumstances, then the harm that befalls them cannot be related to a defective mode of intentional action.
The theodicean problem suggested by these considerations can be stated as follows: It is allegedly the case that an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent being has created and now sustains the universe. Part of this universe is the realm in which human beings are motivated to judge and/or act through forces largely or wholly beyond their control. In a considerable subset of these cases, they are so motivated in circumstances that, through no fault of their own, provide no possibility of their judging both rightly and according to the truth, or of their acting in the best fashion possible and on the basis of a sound deliberative procedure. Frequently human beings who judge or act erroneously in such cases, and/or other human beings affected by their actions, suffer as a result of those errors. How are these facts about human existence to be squared with the hypothesis that human beings are the creations of an infinitely perfect being? To say the same thing in another way, it is sufficient to establish that the creator has the power to influence factors that, in any degree, incline human beings to err, to raise serious prima facie theodicean difficulties for those who contend that the creator is an infinitely perfect being.
Each of the theodicean problems that Descartes examines is developed in detail. So are his various arguments with respect to the compatibility of these forms of error and God's infinite perfection. As a part of this process, the significance of the problem Descartes raised in the Fourth Meditation to his larger epistemological project in the Meditations is carefully considered. This relation has not previously been adequately appreciated or investigated. The significance of the problem developed in the Sixth Meditation in terms of Descartes' theory of perception is also studiously weighed. Finally, considerable attention is devoted to the development of a third problem of evil, suggested by Descartes' Fourth Meditation, that has been overlooked in Jewish and Christian theodicy to date.
The distinctive feature of Tierno's arguments is that his conclusions are drawn from the failure of the arguments of the Fourth Meditation. He implies that these arguments are crucial to Descartes' philosophical project as a whole and, as such, deserve greater attention. than they have received. This discussion of the effects of suffering and the nature of evil should offers some significant reconsiderations of the theme as understood by Descartes.
1. The Theodicean Problem Created by Human Errors of Judgment
2. Descartes's Arguments Concerning Human Errors of Judgment
3. Some Points of Clarification
4. The Epistemological Argument
5. The Metaphysical Argument
6. The Argument from Freedom of the Will
7. The Argument from Divine Liberty
8. The Psychological Argument
9. Some Positive Remarks Concerning Erroneous Judgments
10. Objections Anticipated
11. Descartes on Human Errors of Natural Disposition
12. A Critical Analysis of Descartes's Arguments
13. Some Preliminary Remarks
14. The Theodicean Argument
15. The Philosophical Argument
Joel Thomas Tierno is Assistant Professor at Erie Community College and Instructor in Philosophy and Religion at Elmira College, New York.
Last modified: January 24, 2016
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