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file0001692203283.jpgDescartes broke with “traditional theism” (as defined by medieval scholasticism) in his doctrine of eternal truths. The eternal truths—truths about math, logic, and other things we’d call ‘necessary’—are determined entirely by God’s free will. Interestingly, Descartes derives his doctrine of eternal truths from a strict doctrine of divine simplicity. One way of reading Descartes’s doctrine of eternal truths is to see him criticizing scholastic theologians and philosophers for failing to appreciate the implications of divine simplicity. (Of course, it is difficult to figure out what Descartes exactly means since he never wrote a systematic account of his theory of eternal ideas. We have to piece it together from several fragmentary thoughts, which isn’t easy.)
According to the traditional account of divine simplicity, God cannot bring about what is logically impossible. This is a consequence of God’s knowing his own essence perfectly. On traditional accounts of divine simplicity, the essences of all things are contained within God’s essence. Thomas Aquinas explains that “God knows not only that things are in Him, but, by the mere fact that they are in Him, He knows them in their own nature” (Summa Theologiae I, 14, 6). Consequently, when it comes to “eternal truths”, essences, and necessary truths, these are determined by God’s understanding of his own essence, and God’s will cannot decide what modal properties these truths possess. The modality of necessary truths (e.g., the necessity of necessary truths) is fixed by God’s eternal nature, which makes it impossible for God to make it such that 2+3=8205 or that a triangle has two sides or that a human not be an animal. In order to bring about these necessary falsehoods, on the traditional view of simplicity, God would have to change his own nature (which by definition is immutable). Thus, the scholastics maintained a plausible way to affirm the necessity of God in order for all truths to obtain, but while preserving some fairly plausible intuitions about the modal status of essences and other necessary truths.

Descartes rejects the scholastics’ solution to the nature of “eternal truths” because Descartes believes they are violating the doctrine of divine simplicity in their answer. Here’s one way to read between the lines to arrive at Descartes’s criticism. According to the (scholastic version of the) doctrine of divine simplicity, God’s intellect contains the unactualized essences of all possible beings. But God chooses only to create a small number of them (e.g., God creates horses, but not unicorns; humans but not mermaids). Why did God choose to create the things that he did rather than the others? Presumably, the answers supplied by the scholastics would appeal to something about the particular natures that God chose to create. Specifically, when it comes to “eternal truths”, like the truth of the Pythagorean theorem, God would be impelled to make them true by virtue of their particular natures. Descartes, however, does not think God’s will is susceptible to any compelled causes. In order for God to be free, God’s will must be unimpeded by all obstacles, including his own nature. On Descartes’s view, for God’s will to be perfectly free, it would have to be perfectly indifferent to all of the choices. The move the scholastics must make to block Descartes’s conclusion results in denying divine simplicity. In order to reject Descartes’s account of “eternal truths”, the scholastics must suggest that what causes God’s will to be restricted to whatever is logically possible, is a division in God’s will and intellect. In a letter to Mersenne dated May 6, 1630, Descartes explains that eternal truths:
are true or possible only because God knows them as true or possible. They are not known as true by God in any way which would imply that they are true independently of him. If men really understood the sense of their words, they could not say without blasphemy that the truth of anything is prior to the knowledge which God has of it. For in God willing and knowing are a single thing in such a way that by the very fact of willing something he knows it and it is only for this reason that such a thing is true. So we must not say that if god did not exist nevertheless these truths would be true.

If one accepts the assumption that God’s nature is simple, then one cannot claim that God’s understanding of necessary essences is prior (even logically) to his willing—since there can be no essential difference in these actions if God is simple.

I think Descartes is right about what is logically entailed by divine simplicity. A consistent advocate of divine simplicity seems to be committed to universal possibilism. Of course, since universal possibilism is untenable, I think this shows that divine simplicity is false. This is a classic instance of whether one should use modus ponens to affirm universal possibilism or modus tollens to deny divine simplicity. (I’m skeptical as to the possibility that one can deny the validity of the conditional.)


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