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Descartes, Quantum Causality and Conceptions of the Divine

January 24, 2016

Descartes’ proof of God, in the Third Mediation, relies on a Newtonian concept of causality. All information about the effect, in this case Descartes’ conception of God, comes from the cause, an existent God. He draws a straight line, in one direction, from his conception of God to the prime cause, God. Over the last few years experiments in quantum causality seem to show that information about the current state of a particle can come from both the past and the future. Lines of causality, particularly related to information or knowledge of something, can be bi-directional, moving both backward, to a prime mover, and forward, to some future state. This may affect his argument.

The quantum experiments could weaken his argument. Though, they could strengthen his arguments or, at least, still his pattern of argument. Many theologies contain an inevitable future redemption. I don’t know Descartes’ thoughts on a future redemption. He does believe his own knowledge grows over time. He also believes complete knowledge is one of God’s traits. Therefore Descartes’ own increase in knowledge over time is part of the proof of God’s existence. This is different than believing in a future redemption. But let’s assume he believes in the inevitable perfection of the world and that this is an actual trait or manifestation of the Divine.

The future redemption, then, becomes a piece of knowledge which exists in the future which contributes to the current state of his conception of God. As Descartes may put it “It is certain the world will be redeemed and more perfect in the future. Looking around I see this state does not exist currently. But we know it exists in the future. There is no way I could extract that conception from the world around me [I am skipping the bulky terms of formal versus objective realities] since it does not exist. Yet the natural light of my intellect shows that it is inevitable and exists, albeit in the future. It therefore becomes abundantly clear that a God must exist, which is separate from and outside of my own existence, for whom the future redemption exists. Were we to say that this concept of redemption comes merely from extrapolating that my own knowledge of the world grows more perfect every day, this too would prove God’s existence. For I, being finite, cannot conceive of an end to this perfection of knowledge, whereas the future redemption contains a world awash in the knowledge of God and more so, the world itself would be perfected to a state inconceivable to my finite mind.

I believe the quantum experiments would strengthen Descartes arguments. It strikes me that Descartes has a very personal conception of God and would find ways to make that conception fit the fact patterns of science. One thought experiment that leads to me to conclude that he has a personal conception of God is based on Descartes’ thought experiment on his current state of existence. Descartes argues that in order for him to exist currently something must be giving him existence. Having been born is not enough. Something must explain how he exists right now as a thinking entity. Since he has no knowledge of how he exists right now as a thinking entity, yet he is sure he exists right now as a thinking entity, there must be something which has that knowledge. That is God. Further, God is the source of that existence. God is both the knower of the knowledge of Descartes existence as a thinking being at this moment and the source of that existence.

The argument stems from Descartes inability to explain how he knows, with the clarity of the natural light, that he exists right now as a thinking entity. For Descartes, clarity of knowing is the highest ideal. He places intellect above all. God is the ultimate intellect.

He also uses his conception of God, as a singular intellect, to argue for monotheism. Descartes argues that because he, Descartes, has a single intellect, God is singular and not a pantheon of gods. There is no need for a pantheon on gods. This argument works whether the sufficiency of a singular intellect comes from a logical argument i.e. one single, perfect and infinite intellect is logically all that’s needed. Or, it also works, if the argument reflects an idea that perfection is unity in intellect (something which he seems to share with the stoics) i.e. that perfection for Descartes means that everything can be explained and encompassed by the natural light, by the single guiding principle of intellect.

The two arguments are one intellect is all that is needed and one intellect is perfection.

For Descartes, emotions are given far less reality than intellect. (In this way, he seems to share much in common with Epictetus’ stoics.) This leads to my thought experiment. I wonder how Descartes proof of God would change if he were a hero from a Greek epic, say the Iliad or the Odyssey? The characters in these epics put a high premium on emotions. Emotions have a greater reality than even appearances. Gods morph into humans. Human actions reflect the whims of gods. Divine and semi divine creatures threaten the fulfillment of human intent. The world is full of seemingly random, emotional events which interfere with the best laid, intellect driven plans of people. In fact cunning, often thought of has cleverness or intelligence, in Odysseus, is defined as the ability to deceive. Deception and manipulation rule to roost. Intellect is an ineffective tool in the world of Greek epics.

If Descartes were a Greek hero, with emotion above all, would he conceive of God as the source of all emotion, the ultimate holder of all emotions? Would he want to have one god hold all these emotions?

It seems conceivable he could look at his own emotions and want to lay claim to having some of them inside himself and others as coming from outside himself. Recognizing the Greek heroes valued different emotions than we do now, I’m going to use those emotions we seem to value in this example. So, for example, Descartes as Greek hero (Descarteus?) may be proud to say he has kindness and love inside him. But, when he hurts someone he may claim that comes from outside himself. Could he abide by the inconsistency of having some emotions inside him and some outside himself? Looking at his emotions and seeing how ephemeral they are and how they can pass over him as though from an outside source, he may very well conclude they all come from outside himself. He may also be unable to feel how one emotion can so easily pass and become another emotion and conclude they are influenced by sources outside himself. Would he want or hold a unity of emotions as supreme? It seems easy to conceive Descarteus developing arguments for the existence of a pantheon of gods, each specializing in one emotion or another, slipping effortlessly into and out of our world, influencing us without our knowledge and arguing amongst themselves leaving us clueless as to the course emotions or actions may take.

[In the above example I prefer the phrase “unable to feel” rather than “unable to understand” to keep intellect well out of this. Though, the argument works even if you allow intellect to come in through this keyhole because his goal would not be to understand thought but to understand emotion. In fact, we do see this resulting in a pantheon of sources, albeit a pantheon inside oneself, when Freud turns intellect to emotions and asks how we understand our emotions. I also prefer “clueless,” instead of “leaving us in the dark” to avoid the often judgement laden contradistinction between dark as bad and light as good, as in Descartes’ “natural light.”]

Descarteus, using the same patterns as Descartes, may come to a very different set of conclusions.

This leads us back to the idea that Descartes has a specific, personal conception of God behind his arguments. It dovetails with the beginning of this post, where we discussed how he could and, I argue, likely would, fold new fact patterns into his arguments to advance his conception of God. His pattern of argument is flexible and his personal theology likely contains all elements to supply his arguments, with sufficient mental gymnastics, with material to support those arguments. All these can be rallied to support his personal conception of God.

Before stepping away from this post I’d like to share a tangential impression of the Third Meditation. This impression is extraneous to the text, though the letter of dedication to the Sacred Faculty of Theology in Paris, included in some editions of the Meditations, is somewhere there in the impression, and it by no means is meant to imply that Descartes fostered religious orthodoxy.

I sometimes read the Third Meditation and can see its pattern of argumentation used to foster religious orthodoxy and to close the door on further discussions about Divinity. In many cases the argument collapses to “as all true believers know… [reflecting Descartes personal conception of God]” and therefore “if you do not reach the same conclusion you must not be a true believer.”

We can have different personal conceptions of God. For example, it seems conceivable that God contain all intellect and all emotions. Descartes talks about divine emotions. He mentions God as good and beneficent. But his use of these terms seems far removed from our very human emotions. They seem to beg for the intellectual study of morals and ethics, rather than speaking directly to our often capricious emotions. The way Descartes talks about God seems to leave no room for emotions like anger and doing harm (though these are mentioned as describing God in the King James Bible) and it sees manifestations like deception and cunning as antithetical to God. (In fact, much of this first part of the meditations dwells on how God cannot be a deceiver.) We’ve talked about apply his pattern of argumentation to accommodate new fact patterns, the quantum experiments, and an entirely opposite conception of divinity, one based on emotions. In both cases, his pattern of argumentation can be applied and stands strong. In fact, it seems to be a solid pattern of argument for explaining the Greek pantheon and Freud’s theories. But I wonder if the pattern of argument would stand or change if he had conceived of God as being both the source of intellect and as being the source, in some sense, of our very human emotions?

I suspect the arguments may then be less cut and dry, less easily grasped by the mind alone, but perhaps gentler on those who have or want to explore different conceptions of the Divine.

From → Philosophy

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