Descartes: Epistemology as Theodicy

I am probably stating the entirely obvious, but taking a class on Descartes’ Meditations this year, it struck me for the first time how closely his epistemology is linked to a theodicy.

It is well known that God plays a significant role in the structure of the work. It is the proof for God’s existence in the third meditation which establishes the possibility of moving from the certain perception of one’s own existence to any confidence that the external, material world exists. Crucial to the argument is that the idea of God is the idea of a perfect being. By establishing that ideas possess a kind of reality which demands a causal explanation, and that a finite imperfect being cannot be the cause of an idea of perfection, Descartes builds his escape route from the cogito to an external reality.

However, as soon as the proof is given, we are presented with a new problem. If God is, in reality, perfect, why has he created a being like me who is obviously imperfect and prone to error? Descartes argues that, while my will and capacity for judgement is unlimited (like God’s), able to range over any object, my intellect is finite. Problems arise when I make judgements which surpass the reach of my intellect. Confine myself to what I can know clearly and distinctly, and I will not go wrong.

The problem facing Descartes is that he must maintain two things at once. On the one hand, he must present us with a clear and distinct idea of a perfect being, an idea we know to be that of perfection. On the other, he must maintain the limitation of the intellect, or his theodicy falls to the ground, and with it God’s perfection.

So we read that we do not need direct knowledge of actual perfections, but knowledge of attributes which imply a perfection; that it is not surprising that I do not understand how God acts; that perhaps there is a bigger picture in terms of which everything can be justified, but I don’t have access to it. Repeatedly, we are told that we cannot complain, that perhaps the answer is out there. Evil is a privation, not something God has made. And so on. At this absolutely crucial fulcrum of the argument, everything becomes clouded in an Augustinian fog.

It is striking, then, that at the heart of the radical, rationalist foundation of modern epistemology is a theodicy which demands a theological humiliation of knowledge. And I wonder if there is something haunting the continuing theological and forensic power of the language of ‘justification’ which has played such a key role in epistemology since then. It demands a kind of compliance with ‘what there is’. Our knowledge is guilty until we reach a point where it is justified by an external factor: and then, we have surrendered the right to complain.

One Response to “Descartes: Epistemology as Theodicy”

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This is really uncanny, because the chapter I’m working on this week is going to culminate in a comparison between the fall of the devil and Descartes’ Meditations — which obviously implies a strong element of theodicy.

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