Featured author: Chris de Ray is a current PhD candidate at King’s College London. His interests lie mainly in philosophy of science, philosophy of religion and metaphysics. His thesis project concerns ‘evolutionary scepticism’ and the realism debate in philosophy of science. He sometimes shares his thoughts on his blog, https://chrisderay.wixsite.com/mysite.
God, on most conceptions, is a res cogitans, a thinking thing. Hence, God has thoughts. Traditionally, it is believed that at least some of God’s thoughts are eternal. This is especially true of divine ideas or concepts, which have generally been regarded as immutable and uncreated. God can choose to create a human, but cannot choose to have (or not have) the idea or concept of humanity. So, had God refrained from creating human beings, he would still eternally possess the idea of humanity.
This fits nicely with the old Platonic view of the eternality of the perfect Forms, which many Platonists have identified with ideas in the divine intellect. Some, however, have been rather less happy about this picture, because it seems incompatible with divine freedom. How can God have perfect free will if he cannot choose to have (some of) the ideas that he has? This would appear to constrain God in ways inconsistent with God’s perfection. Surely, the greatest conceivable being would enjoy absolute control over his thoughts.
This concern is most commonly associated with Descartes, who expressed it as follows:
“As for the freedom of the will (…) it is impossible to imagine that anything is thought of in the divine intellect as good or true, or worthy of belief or action or omission, prior to the decision of the divine will to make it so (…) I mean that there is not even any priority or order (…) such that God’s idea of the good impelled him to choose one thing or another.”
Descartes contrasts two different accounts of divine action. On the first, and more traditional account, the divine will acts according to preexisting ideas, such as the idea of the Good. God’s choice to create a good world, for instance, is at least partly explained by the existence of an idea of ‘goodness’ in God’s mind, which guides his actions. We may say that on this model, divine intellect is prior to divine will. Descartes rejects it because of its apparent implication that God’s actions are “impelled” by God’s ideas. The thought seems to be that God cannot truly be in control of his actions if they are “impelled” by anything, be it divine ideas or anything else. Descartes’s preferred model is one in which God’s will generates God’s ideas, including God’s idea of the good, or God’s idea of a triangle. Thus, God does not (always) act according to preexisting ideas, he ‘just acts’. We may say that on this second account, divine will is prior to divine intellect.
Importantly, for Descartes, this doesn’t mean that God’s ideas are not immutable. To the contrary, God’s idea, say, of goodness is immutable, but only because “the will and decree of God willed and decreed that [it] should be so” (cf. Objections to the Vth Meditation). This may not be the absolute immutability that his critics would have had in mind, but for Descartes, it is sufficient.
As strange as it sounds, the notion that God creates his own ideas is not entirely without precedent in the history of philosophy. Maria Rosa Antognazza notes that, for the Neoplatonists, the divine intellect or Nous, comprised of the perfect Forms, is not ultimate, but rather is brought about by the One, which is ultimate. The key difference, of course, is that for Descartes the divine intellect is intentionally brought about by God through a free act of the will, while the Nous necessarily emanates from the Neoplatonic One.
This latter point brings out what I think to be a serious objection to the Cartesian view. If God’s ideas ultimately find their origin in a divine creative act, then God could not have created his ideas according to his ideas. This would be obviously circular, because to act according to ideas entails the possession of ideas, prior to the act. For example, it cannot be the case that God chose to create all of his ideas because he somehow regarded it as good that he should possess such ideas. Indeed, for God to regard the possession of ideas as good, he would need to already possess some idea of goodness, and thus to possess at least one idea. It follows from this that God could not have created the collection of his ideas for any reason whatsoever. To act for a reason is to act ‘in view’ of something, or ‘in order to secure’ something. My reason for getting up and moving towards the kitchen is that I want coffee. But for this to be the reason for my actions, I must at the very least have an idea of ‘coffee’, prior to acting. In effect, one must be in possession of ideas in order to act for reasons: to act for a reason is to act according to at least one idea. So, if God’s does not act according to any idea in creating his ideas, then God cannot create his ideas for any reason.
So far, Descartes wouldn’t disagree, as he repeatedly states that God acts out of “indifference”, which one may take to mean ‘for no reason’. But there is a surprising implication here. If God does not create his ideas for any reason at all, then God does not create his ideas intentionally – that is, God does not create his ideas in order to create his ideas. For if he did, he would be acting for a reason, namely, to create ideas. And for God to act for this reason would require him to possess the idea of an ‘idea’, and the idea of ‘creating an idea’.
And now for the final step: if God does not create his ideas intentionally, then God does not create his ideas freely. It is a necessary requirement of free action that one acts with some corresponding intention. If a sudden pain causes me to accidentally knock my cup off the table, I cannot be said to have done so out of a free act of the will. For that, I must intend to knock my cup off the table, i.e. to act in order to knock the cup off the table. Therefore, if God did not intend to create his ideas, God did not do so out of a free act of the will. Therefore, if God creates all his ideas, God cannot be perfectly free. Below is a summary of my argument:
- If God created all his ideas, God did not do so according to any idea.
- If God did not create all his ideas according to any idea, God did not do so for any reason.
- If God did not create all his ideas for any reason, God did not do so intentionally.
- If God did not create all his ideas intentionally, God’s act of creating all his ideas was not a free act of the will.
- If God’s act of creating all his ideas was not a free act of the will, God is not perfectly free.
- Therefore, if God created all his ideas, God is not perfectly free.
The irony, of course, is that Descartes’ view that God creates all his ideas was supposed to ensure that God is truly free. But if my argument is sound, his view does precisely the opposite.
A possible objection: one could try to attack premise (3) by saying that God could have created his ideas ‘for no reason’, but nevertheless intentionally. It might be thought that if God creates his ideas ‘for the sake of it’ and not for any ulterior motive, then God is acting intentionally but for no reason. But I beg to differ: if God acts ‘for the sake of’ creating his ideas, then God does act for a reason, and that reason is that he wanted to create ideas. Indeed, when we say that we intentionally did X ‘for no reason’, we usually mean that we did X for ‘no other reason than that we wanted to do X’ (cf. Swinburne’s The Coherence of Theism, pp. 149-152).
Chris de Ray
C. P. Ragland – The Will to Reason: Theodicy and Freedom in Descartes.
Maria Rosa Antognazza – Rationalism.
René Descartes – Meditations on First Philosophy.
René Descartes – Objections to the Meditations and Descartes’s Replies.
Richard Swinburne – The Coherence of Theism.