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RAGLAND, C.P.: The Witt to Reason: Theodicy and Freedom in Descartes.

RAGLAND, C. P. The Witt to Reason: Theodicy and Freedom in Descartes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 255 pp. Cloth, $78.00--Survey courses in the history of philosophy routinely label Descartes a rationalist Such a description is understandable since Descartes is a logical system builder. However, Descartes's rationalism must not obscure the role the will plays in his system. By the end of Ragland's instructive volume, it is evident that the will may have more significance than reason itself in Descartes's thought.

Ragland examines the Meditations as a key source of information on the nature of will. The Meditations is an appropriate selection since Descartes stresses the need for the will to conquer inattention that distracts the knower from consideration of clear and distinct ideas. Once one begins to investigate the regulatory effects of the will on the task of the Meditations, the door opens onto a variety of issues regarding the will. Descartes has to arrest doubt by finding certainty. But Descartes's methodical doubt is not easily arrested. Clear and distinct ideas would seem to make that arrest. And yet, clear and distinct ideas are not the last word, for he can imagine extreme skeptical scenarios, like the possibility that he has a deceiving nature (compromising the sureness of clear and distinct ideas); or like the possibility that an evil deceiving deity makes clear and distinct ideas appear reliable when they are not. Only the conviction that there is an omnibenevolent God can resolve these doubts.

At this point Descartes appears to get ensnared in his infamous circle: he must rely on clear and distinct ideas to prove the existence of an omnibenevolent God, and yet he can be sure clear and distinct ideas are reliable only once he can demonstrate an omnibenevolent deity exists. In his first chapter Ragland explains that the Cartesian circle is an apparent but not a real problem for Descartes. If one distinguishes between a clear and distinct perception as it is actually being perceived and a clear and distinct perception as it is brought to mind retrospectively, one can escape the circle. Clear and distinct perceptions, when they occur in present time, are morally and epistemically certain. Only retrospectively are they dubitable.

Still, Ragland holds that escaping the Cartesian circle is not enough to free reason from a possible conflict. The skeptic's worry that we may err continues to nag. While Descartes is certain that God inoculates us against error when the mind genuinely grasps clear and distinct ideas, error nonetheless can disorder the intellect when obscure perceptions are mistaken as true. The will can wander, distract the intellect, and commit error. This brings up the question: why would God have created us to suffer error? This question requires a kind of theodicy to answer. The exploration of the implications of this theodicy is a distinctive feature of Ragland's study. The problem is this: if God is purportedly all-good, and yet if the human knower (God's special creature) can err, why does God permit its occurrence? Shouldn't divine goodness and power guarantee that human nature can neither be deceived by another nor by itself? Ragland explains that Descartes basically invokes the classical free-will defense in theodicy to answer this question. God so values our freedom that he tolerates our tendencies to err. He creates the universe in such a way that its overall good is best served when humans have free will, the misuse of which can produce error. On balance, the good of human persons and the universe are better achieved by permitting error.

This theodicy forces Descartes to contemplate the relationship of providence to free will. Classical theodicy struggles to preserve God's omniscience and governance while also preserving human free will. Ragland ventures outside the Meditations to examine how Descartes tries to preserve the relationship for his epistemic theodicy. His sources are Correspondence with Princess Elizabeth, Principles of Philosophy, and Correspondence with Denis Mesland. These texts show that Descartes at different times wrestles with whether he should prefer the established Dominican solution or the more recent Jesuit solution, a theory called Molinism, after the Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina. The Dominicans hold that God's omnipotence and omnipresence dictate that he governs everything that occurs in the universe, even human choices. The Dominicans resort to the mystery of God's causal power (as distinct from the determinate causation of creatures) to explain how God's absolute causal action in creation and human free will can nonetheless be compatible. On the other hand, the Molinist solution posits "middle knowledge" as a way to explain how God's universal, absolute causation combines with free will (which we grasp by intuition). God foresees all the possibilities in the universe, which include what human beings would choose to do under any conceivable circumstance. From eternity God knows these circumstances and their outcomes. Accordingly, God creates (or actualizes) some of these circumstances as occasions for human beings to respond predictably but by free choice. God arranges the universe to accommodate all these occasions and choices so that the universe is best. While Descartes apparently prefers the Dominican solution, his effort is problematic because of his conception of the eternal truths. Since all events, even contingent ones, are entailed by the divine eternal truths, logical necessity rules out freedom. Ragland argues that this difficulty lingers as an incoherence in Descartes's system, but the Frenchman explains it away by appealing to the mystery of God's nature and causal power.

Ragland's treatment of the relationship of providence and freedom is clearly written, intensively analyzed, and historically conscientious. It makes a fitting finale to his fine book, the whole of which is elegant and nuanced. It is an achievement that ought to influence subsequent Cartesian scholarship.--Curtis Hancock, Rockhurst University
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Author:Hancock, Curtis
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2018
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