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The Conception of God in Descartes and Leibniz

Ren? Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz both espouse belief in a God that is infinitely powerful, infinitely knowledgeable and infinitely benevolent. Nonetheless, Descartes and Leibniz differently structure the hierarchy of those three defining traits as they determine God’s actions. Descartes’ God is a Voluntarist, meaning that God has absolute freedom of indifference. Power is supreme for Descartes. Leibniz objects to the arbitrariness of goodness and truth that arises from Descartes’ conception. In response, Leibniz chooses to depict a God whose power is constrained by a dominant intellect and benevolence. However, in Leibniz’s attempt to find absolute truth and goodness outside of God’s power, he limits God’s power to such an extent that the nature of God is fundamentally altered from the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-benevolent conception that Leibniz claims to believe in. Ultimately, Descartes’ view of God, though problematic, is more convincing because it does not involve the paradox of a God with limited freedom.

For Descartes, God’s power is primary. God can will anything to exist. Descartes writes that “every single moment of my entire existence depends on him.” God has complete freedom of discretion in choosing what to create and what not to. Descartes “cannot deny that many other things have been made by him, or at least could have been made.” God could have created any kind of world, or no world, if he wanted, and as one of God’s creations, Descartes has “no right” to question way God chose to create the world and his unique role in it.

Although Descartes has no right to question God’s choice, he does not need to worry that God’s choice is not the best or most perfect because God is infinitely benevolent. Benevolence is a form of perfection and because God is all perfect, he is by definition benevolent. Descartes explains the imperfections in the world by asserting that there is a larger perfection achieved by having some parts of the world imperfect, like humans. As an imperfect human he cannot hope to comprehend that larger perfection. Fundamental for Descartes is the fact that God cannot be a deceiver because it would be an imperfection. He makes sure to emphasize that God does have the power to deceive, but he just does not have the will to deceive because that would be a flaw. Descartes believes that God is not a deceiver because it would compromise his infinite goodness, but even the idea of what is good or not remains under God’s control. “The nature of all goodness and truth is already determined by God.”

It is vital for Descartes that God is not a deceiver because God determines what people believe to be truth, so a non-deceiving God ensures that what people clearly and distinctly perceive to be true really is. But not only does God determine what people believe to be true, God determines truth itself. There is no absolute truth outside of God. As Gary Hatfield writes, even the mathematical and logical truths are “established by God and are entirely dependent on him, just as are all his other creations.” God could have created other mathematical truths. Two plus two could equal five if God wanted. Thus although the mathematical truths seem to be absolutely true, they are not. They could be otherwise. God is infinitely knowledgeable and infinitely benevolent but the truths that he knows and the goodness that he abides by were first decided on by he himself. God is not held to any external standards. As Hatfield articulates, “nothing about the current set of essences required God to create them instead of others.”

Descartes’ depiction of God is unsettling because it makes goodness and truth completely arbitrary. The ultimate standards by which we judge all our actions and beliefs seem to carry less weight if they were chosen at God’s whim. There is nothing inherent in God’s concepts of truth and goodness that mandated that God chose them. We are God’s pawns, believing whatever he says to believe, and we have no external standard by which we know that it is correct to believe him. Descartes ensures us that God is not a deceiver, but that becomes less of a consolation if we know that God himself determined what deceit is. It seems less important to say that God is all-good and all-knowing because the terms good and knowing have been relativized. The sole meaningful definition of God becomes that he is all-powerful.

Leibniz is troubled by this picture of God. He seeks to solve the problem of the arbitrary nature of goodness and truth that arises from Descartes’ theory of power as God’s supreme defining trait. Leibniz sets himself directly up against Descartes: “I am far removed from the opinion of those who maintain that there are no rules of goodness and perfection in the nature of things or in the ideas God has of them.” Leibniz believes that the notion that things are good because God made them is not enough. It undermines God’s magnificence. “Why praise him for what he has done if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing the exact opposite?”

Leibniz’s God, unlike Descartes’ Voluntarist, is an Intellectualist. His infinite intellect and benevolence reign in his infinite power. Leibniz believes that there are standards for truth and goodness that exist outside of God’s will. Leibniz believes that there is an infinity of possible worlds that exist in God’s intellect and God chose to create the one that exists because it is the best. There are certain necessary truths, such as the laws of mathematics, which exist in every single world. The opposite of these truths would be a contradiction. God simply cannot will two plus two to equal five.

In addition to necessary truths, there are contingent truths specific to each possible world. The opposite of these truths does not imply a contradiction, because they could be otherwise, for example if God had chosen to create a different world than he did. However, Leibniz’s God has less power than Descartes’ even over the contingent truths. God had to accept the truths that exist in our world when he chose to create our world. He could not create our world and then choose to change some of the laws of our world. Our world existed in God’s intellect as it is, with all the truths that hold in our world and all the events that have ever happened and will ever happen. Once he chose our world, there was nothing he could do to change it. “God foresees things as they are and does not change their nature.” The truths exist independent of his will to bring them into realization through creation.

By dividing truths into contingent and necessary, Leibniz hopes to preserve some of both divine and human freedom. If things could have been otherwise, they are not fated and God and people retain choice over their actions. However, God’s infinite benevolence causes a large problem for such reasoning. Because God is infinitely good, he had to choose the best possible world. Leibniz claims that “notions possible in themselves do not depend upon God’s free decrees.” However, it is hard to believe that other notions and other worlds are truly possible if God was forced by his benevolence to create our world and our world only. Leibniz thinks he has retained God’s freedom by making a distinction between metaphysical or absolute necessity and moral necessity. God’s choice of this world was not metaphysically necessary because there were other worlds he could have chosen. However, when his benevolence is accounted for, it is clear that he really could not have chosen other worlds. His moral necessity is de facto metaphysical necessity. It would be a logical contradiction of his benevolence if he did not follow the moral necessity.

Leibniz’s God is constrained by his own benevolence and knowledge to the point that he loses all freedom of creation. It may be self-constraint but it is a crippling constraint nonetheless. Allowing God the power to act otherwise than he did forces a contradiction in his own nature because it goes against his benevolence. “God cannot will voluntarily…rather we must say that God wills the best through his nature.” Leibniz has created a solution to the arbitrariness of goodness and truth but in doing so he has eliminated one of God’s defining faculties, that of infinite power.

Leibniz’s depiction of God is contradictory. God cannot be both infinitely powerful and completely constrained by de facto metaphysical necessity. Descartes’ conception of God is problematic but it is not contradictory. Consequently, Descartes’ God is ultimately more compelling. If people accept that God creates and defines their existence, it is a natural leap to believe that God creates and defines everything else, including the notions of goodness and truth. A person is already taking a gigantic leap of faith in believing that there is a God and that God is infinitely benevolent, powerful, and knowledgeable, when the existence and nature of God are phenomenologically completely unknowable to us. In such circumstances it seems inappropriate to make arguments about arbitrariness. Descartes’ God is magnificent just for being God, for being infinitely powerful and creating the world and the people that live in it. This alone merits their devotion. Leibniz strives to define standards of goodness and truth, but in trying to preserve the traditional concept of God at the same time, he creates a contradictory argument. Despite his claim otherwise, Leibniz limits God, and this is counter to the concept of God as an infinite being. Leibniz tries to challenge Descartes’ hierarchy of God’s three defining traits, but in placing God’s infinite power below his intellect and benevolence, Leibniz undermines God’s infinite power and thus the entire notion of God he claims to subscribe to. Descartes’ model of God is more persuasive because he is able to preserve the limitless nature of God with all three characteristics intact.

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