Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Modern Philosophy 6

For the class in Modern Philosophy I'm taking this semester, we have to write 15 two-paged papers (minimum) on philosophers such as Descartes, Hume, Locke, and Leibnitz. In this essay, I wrote about select passages in Malebranche’s Search After Truth. The following is my submission:

Malebranche’s Search After Truth is an ostensive synthesis of Descartes’ philosophy, Augustinianism, Occasionalism, and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

In his third book, Malebranche sought to explain the fact of and means by which an idea – viz. the affectation or modification of the soul due to perception of an object – is produced in the mind. Prefatorily, Malebranche criticized those who prejudiciously believe that an idea implies its referent materially exists. One may, for instance, experience spiritual externals apart from an intermediary. Implicit in his argumentation was the possibility of a Kantian distinction between that which is a noumenon and that which is a phenomenon. Malebranche’s central thesis upon which he elaborates was that it is only by recognizing the [Christian] God as epistemologically authoritative that what we can intelligibly justify what we believe, systematically deconstructing philosophies which hinge the origin of ideas upon something other than God’s efficient causation.

One such alternative philosophy proposed that physical objects imprint their likeness onto one’s senses. Malebranche dismissed this modernized Aristotelianism as assumptive, since objects would by definition be impenetrable. Another criticism he offered was that, given that there is no apparent point at which the likeness of two bodies should not meet, distinguishing between bodies would be impossible. This objection carries more force when one realizes that space is unobservable and yet alleged by many to be a body which is more active than most others.

Other contemporaries of Malebranche suggested the soul is independently capable of producing ideas. Contrarily, Malebranche argued that one cannot form an idea of an object prior to some understanding of the object itself. However, such would presuppose knowledge of the object, meaning it would be unnecessary for one to form the idea afresh. Our ideas, then, are only as perfect as the reflected or perceived referents. The primary fallacy in the reasoning of these people, said Malebranche, stems from the fact they are ignorant of or unduly prejudiced against the possibility an external cause of their ideas. Providing a brief foreshadowing of his own philosophy, Malebranche wrote that one should not confuse correlation with causation; rather, one should depict the interaction of objects whose motion subsequently changes as merely the occasion upon which God, the true cause of all things, executes His will.

Before elaborating upon this, however, Malebranche considered the belief of those who say all ideas were innately as opposed to potentially created within us. Malebranche contended that, due to the limitations of the mind, one cannot conceive of, say, the infinite number of possible triangles, nor would one be able to explain the way in which one non-arbitrarily chose a single triangle as a representation of the concept. Malebranche added that it is not clear how this complete, innate knowledge harmonizes with a God who, in the interest of communicability, regularly works in the simplest of ways for the good of his creatures.

Because these systems are untenable, Malebranche concluded that the only remaining possibility is that man absolutely depends on God for all his thoughts; that is, as we are united to God and as God contains in Himself the ideas of all created things, in Him we live, move and have our being. Whatever we perceive, then, is what God has presented to our minds.

To substantiate this – at least in part – Malebranche utilized Descartes’ argument: certain abstract ideas and truths, such as infinitude and perfection, exceed and thus cannot have been produced by the mind. Only God can relate these to His own being, so only God can be argued to have impressed the apprehensions upon his mind. Because these ideas are presupposed, as one must, for instance, have some apprehension of infinity from which he is able to distinguish what is and is not finite, Malebranche claimed this argument was generalizable. Finally, Malebranche noted that the end or purpose of God’s actions pertains, necessarily, to God Himself: that Malebranche discerned these things to be true was natural, for God created with the purpose that certain men come to know Him by His works.

Summarizing his statements and the implications of book three, Malebranche wrote: it is only by God directly mediating thoughts to us that we can immediately perceive the corporeal (an argument which he seems to have derived from Augustine’s De Magistro, since Malebranche’s philosophy of language as it relates to one’s interaction with the physical world is similar), our soul is not corporeal, as one’s thoughts constitutes the essence of one’s soul, and one can as yet only conjecture as to the existence of other minds due to mortal limitations.

In book six, Malebranche laid out more clearly the philosophy of Occasionalism. Essentially, God is the only thing capable of directing or acting upon one’s soul in a causal manner. As God is omnipotent, and as omnipotence is, by definition, an non-transferable trait, what God wills necessarily happens according to His will. His will is thusly said to be the efficient, true cause of all things. An occasional cause, on the other hand, is simply the aforementioned correlation, that which God uses to effect what He wishes; the occasional cause is not to be regarded as the true cause, because it is not the condition upon which the fulfillment of any thing depends. Hence, Malebranche, agreeing with Augustine, believed even knowledge is contingent on God. Also, despite what the senses may imply, locomotion is caused by God. He cites as an example that although the movement of one’s arm may correlate to one’s will, it must be caused by God, for the soul cannot possibly conceive of the allegedly innumerable movements which must take place to effect the movement of the whole arm.

In his fifteenth elucidation, Malebranche briefly refuted objections purported against his philosophy. The first objection, that if secondary causes are not intrinsically efficacious, one could not differentiate between living and dead objects, Malebranche noted was question-begging, as the objector has not shown that something apart from themselves is alive, nor have they even explained clearly what it means to say something is alive. To the second objection, that if Occasionalism were true, it could be the case that fire could cool and water could burn, Malebranche simply replied that, because God is constant and orderly, what we see is normatively constant and orderly. The third objection leveled against Occasionalism was that it absolves one of responsibility, as God could put to naught man’s intentions. Malebranche retorted that God acts in the simplest ways and holds us responsible for how we act, so to try to excuse one’s actions on the grounds that God can will such that our efforts are for naught (insofar as our efforts pertain to our “own” intentions) is irrelevant and misses the fact God is orderly and constant. Furthermore, miracles are and abnormalities are by definition unusual and only produced when necessary to fulfill God’s will. Another accusation was that since God would cause his creatures to act contrarily, God is acting against Himself. Malebranche countered that the objection is spurious because creatures are the immediate actors by which God achieves whatever He wishes; if God wishes “bulls and lions” should fight, He causes them to fight. The final objection Malebranche answered in this section concerned how man can be free and how God can avoid the title of “author of sin” if Occasionalism is true. In accordance with the Westminster Confession and Augustine, Malebranche believed man’s will is free insofar as he wills according to his desires. This volition, however, is necessitated by the desires which God in turn effects according to His will, so our will is not the true cause of any thing: God is. God generally disposes minds toward the good, but Malebranche maintained that even natural impulses are from God. Regardless, one is responsible for his actions because sin implies the actualization of one’s will against God’s precepts, not the potential to choose contraries.

While his philosophy appears to be internally consistent, the primary problem with it is that Malebranche argues inductively, declaring that because the origin of ideas and perfection cannot be accounted for within specific philosophies, his philosophy must be true. One could, then, argue Malebranche was himself suspect of committing the fallacy of arguing from ignorance.

1 comment:

Joshua Butcher said...

I enjoyed your summary very much. I may have to purchase a copy of Malebranche for myself now!