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Dancing with Descartes’ Conception of the Divine

January 31, 2016

We learn more about Descartes’ conception of the divine in the Fourth Meditation. He probes the source of errors. He finds that error comes from exercising judgement where one does not have complete knowledge. He resolves to avoid error or sin by withholding judgement until he has complete knowledge about the subject under consideration.

He states we have unlimited free will and that this is the mark of God on us. This is how we are made in his image, as it were. We have unbridled free will, the same as God. He states that we have complete and true knowledge of certain subjects. However, we are finite beings and do not have true knowledge of everything. Only God knows everything. It is possible to have complete and true knowledge of subjects because our ability to know comes from God. Further, the knowledge we have is true because God is not a deceiver. Error and sin cannot come from mistakes in knowledge, since God is not a deceiver. Instead, error and sin come from making judgements in circumstances where we do not yet have complete and true knowledge of the subject.

This paints a conception of the Divine uninvolved in the day to day life of created beings. Were God involved in day to day life he would determine the choices confronting his creations. Regardless of Descartes resolve to withhold judgement God would determine when choices had to be made and the subject of those choices. It is quite conceivable that one as to make choices regarding subjects of which one does not have complete and true knowledge. This means that God is creating the circumstances which can lead to error or sin.

Clearly, in Descartes conception, God is benevolent and would not intentionally put someone into a situation which can lead to sin. This leaves us with a few explanations for those circumstances where one needs to make a choice without having complete and true knowledge. One, the need to make a choice is an illusion. We don’t really need to make a choice at that time. Two, the choice itself is an illusion. It exists only because we don’t have true knowledge of the subject. Descartes speaks to this explanation when describing how the more he knows about something the less of a choice there is for alternatives which are not good. By definition then, since we have a choice we don’t have true knowledge about the subject. Three, we do have true knowledge about subject but somehow don’t know it.

It is easy to conceive of circumstances where one actually has to make a choice and where one really does not have complete and true knowledge. The circumstances arise constantly in commerce, medicine, IT, war and other commons situations of human life. Neither one nor two seem plausible. Three may be plausible and fits in well with Popper’s criticism of Descartes, in that truth and freedom sin are reserved for a special class of people with true knowledge. However, it isn’t very satisfying and more can be learned about Descartes conception of the divine by digging deeper. Specifically, we can dig into his definition of error or sin.

It seems we can resolve this dilemma by postulating two different realms of error. One is an error of judgement in a mismatch of knowledge and decision. Thus, one may know something to be true and choose the opposite. Let’s call that choice falsehood. Or one may know one doesn’t have knowledge of something, make a choice and justify the choice by saying it was done out of knowledge. Let’s call that choice cowardice.

Choice falsehood seems to fit Descartes conception of the divine and to exist in the fourth meditation. In the fourth meditation he discusses things which are false as being distant from God. Choice cowardice may be what Descartes hopes to avoid in resolving to withhold judgement on subjects of which he does not have complete and true knowledge. This creates a class of choices of which one can be blameless for the outcome since one had no opportunity not the make the choice and may have made the wrong choice due to lack of knowledge. The outcome of these choices has consequences only to the extent one claims the choice was made with knowledge of what would happen.

Adopting this approach, Descartes avoids believing in an uninvolved God or a God who knowingly puts his creations in situations where they can sin. Humility remains a virtue. In fact, we can say choice humility stands in opposition to choice cowardice. We can define choice humility as making a choice without having complete and true knowledge and recognizing one cannot appeal to one’s knowledge to justify the choice. This seems in line with Descartes description of facts and knowledge. This also places the responsibility for falsehood, cowardice or humility (a virtue) on each individual. Virtue is attainable by all and not just those with true knowledge. It makes a virtue of recognizing that we may not have true knowledge. It also makes a virtue of making choices we know to be right. Though, how we determine what is right remains unanswered. Perhaps more menacingly, choice humility creates a loophole for malice. Those intent on doing harm could choose falsehood and quite easily claim humility. The only way to truly know seems to rely on the natural light. We are then left with another example of the potential for abuse, within Descartes’ arguments, of those with a different conception of the divine.

From → Philosophy

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