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Descartes' Modal Metaphysics

First published Mon Apr 15, 2002; substantive revision Wed May 18, 2011
Descartes sometimes speaks of things that have possible existence, in
addition to speaking of things as having actual existence. He also speaks of
eternal and necessary truths that God could nonetheless make false. One of
the interpretive projects that is inspired by Descartes' claims about
possibility and necessity is the construction of a general Cartesian theory of
modality. Any such theory would of course need to be sensitive to what
Descartes says about possibility and necessity, but it must also be sensitive
to his larger metaphysical system.

1. Modality and Clear and Distinct Perception

2. The First Meditation and the Possibility of Radical Deception
3. The Eternal Truths
4. Unactualized Possibles
5. Real Distinction
6. Possibility and Human Freedom
7. The System and its Pillars
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1. Modality and Clear and Distinct Perception
Though Descartes makes a number of claims about possibilities and
necessities, not all of them are to be considered in determining his views on
modality if we take seriously his view that when doing metaphysics we
ought not affirm what we do not clearly and distinctly perceive. Descartes
reveals his commitment to this view in a number of places:

I should like you to remember here that, in matters which may be embraced
by the will, I made a very careful distinction between the conduct of life and
the contemplation of the truth. As far as the conduct of life is concerned, I
am very far from thinking that we should assent only to what is clearly
perceived. But when we are dealing solely with the contemplation of the
truth, surely no one has ever denied that we should refrain from giving
assent to matters which we do not perceive with sufficient distinctness.[1]
If Descartes holds that when doing strict metaphysics we ought not speak of
what we do not clearly and distinctly perceive, a general Cartesian theory of

modality should not be sensitive to claims about possibilities or necessities

that are confused.

One reason why it is important to highlight the distinction between modal

claims that are confused and modal claims that are not is that there are
many modal claims that we might want to give a rigorous analysis but that
Descartes would not. He will not construct his theory of modality around
modal claims that his system entails are confused, and so the theory that he
offers will not necessarily square with all of the modal claims that we would
advance pre-reflectively. For example, we might observe a blue table in front
of us and put forward the claim that it is possible that the table not be blue
and that it could have been black. Descartes himself is going to be careful
about accepting such a claim at face-value. He subscribes to the view that
strictly speaking our senses provide only very obscure information (The
Sixth Meditation, AT 7:84, CSM 2:58) about the bodies located outside of us.
Our knowledge of the truth of such things [located outside of us] seems to
belong to the mind alone, not to the combination of mind and body (ibid.,
AT 7:8283, CSM 2:57), but the mind on its own knows such qualities of
bodies as their extendedness and flexibility (The Second Meditation, AT
7:3031, CSM 2:20). The certainty that we seek in metaphysical inquiry
occurs in the clear perceptions of the intellect and nowhere else (Second
Replies, AT 7:145, CSM 2:104). Returning now to the claim that it is possible
that a given table not be blue and that it could have been black, we need to
keep in mind (for example) that on Descartes' view colors are not in objects
in the way that we normally imagine them to be (Principles of Philosophy
I:68, AT 8A:33, CSM 1:217). We might also advance the claim that our blue
table could occupy a different position in empty space, or the claim that it
could begin to move without being pushed into motion by a cause. The first
claim supposes what Descartes denies that there is empty space
(Principles II:1012, AT 8A:4547, CSM 1:22628) and the second
contradicts a Cartesian law of motion that falls immediately out of our idea
of God (Principles II:3637, AT 8A:6163, CSM 1:24041; Nadler 1987).
However the debate is resolved on these important systematic issues, it is
important to keep in mind that Descartes' theory of modality will be
somewhat circumscribed.[2]

Another reason why it is important to highlight the distinction between

modal claims that are confused and modal claims that are not is that in
what is perhaps his most important and influential philosophical work
Meditations on First Philosophy Descartes often advances a claim that in
the final analysis (and that upon further reflection) he will reject. For
example, he says that what we know best we know either from or through
the senses (First Meditation, AT 7:18, CSM 2:17); that we should use
imagination to get to know our minds better (Second Meditation, AT 7:27,
CSM 2:18); that general perceptions are apt to be more confused than
particular ones (ibid., AT 7:30, CSM 2:20); that bodies really have qualities
like color and taste and sound (ibid.) and heat (Third Meditation, AT 7:41,
4344, CSM 2:28, 3031); and that the appropriate way to inquire into

whether or not the works of God are perfect is to examine the universe in its
entirety (The Fourth Meditation, AT 7:5556, CSM 2:3839). Descartes thinks
that upon further reflection we can recognize that what is known best is
known by purely mental scrutiny (Second Meditation, AT 7:31, CSM 2:21);
that general perceptions are more clear than perceptions of particulars
(ibid.); that color and taste and sound and heat are not in bodies in anything
like the way that we imagine (Sixth Meditation, AT 7:8183, CSM 2:5658;
Principles IV:198, AT 8A:32223, CSM 1:285); and that things are good by
virtue of the fact that God wills them (Sixth Replies, AT 7:43136, CSM

Descartes advances a number of claims that are false in the Meditations,

but he does this for good reason. He is writing in the voice of a meditator
who at the start of inquiry is not yet a Cartesian and who in the course of
inquiry is expressing views that seem to him to be true from his nonCartesian point-of-view. The meditator will express and evaluate these views
and see for himself how they collapse on their own weight.

It might seem surprising that as a philosopher Descartes ever flirts with

confusions at all. When he does so he is just employing his analytic method
what he calls the best and truest method of instruction (Second
Replies, AT 7:156, CSM 2:111). Descartes does not hide that he sometimes
makes claims early in the Meditations that from a later and more
sophisticated point of view he will retract. He says,

The analytic style of writing that I adopted there [in the Meditations] allows
us from time to time to make certain assumptions that have not yet been
thoroughly examined; and this comes out in the First Meditation where I
made many assumptions which I proceeded to refute in subsequent
Descartes advances these claims because he is trying to teach his
metaphysics and because he thinks that his readers will not be in a position
to grasp that metaphysics if he only makes claims that are true.[4]
Reflecting the epistemic individualism that is common in 17th-Century
Philosophy, Descartes insists that we should not accept a view until we see
its truth for ourselves (Appendix to Fifth Replies, AT 9A:208, CSM 2:27273).
But he also holds that at the start of inquiry our conceptions and
commitments are way off. Most of us are inclined to affirm that what we
know best we know through the senses, along with the other falsities
already mentioned, but in addition: our conceptions of mind and God
represent mind and God as sensible when they are not; we think and speak
by way of terms that we do not understand or that may have no
corresponding idea; and what we take to be the paradigm of a distinct
perception is hardly distinct at all.[5] We take in information against the
background of our current commitments and conceptions, and so are
primed to reject what conflicts with them.[6] When we work through the

Meditations from the first-person point-of-view, we accept or reject things

when we see for ourselves that they are to be accepted or rejected, but until
our intellects are emended we do not have the best perspective from which
to see the truth.

2. The First Meditation and the Possibility of Radical Deception

For example, in the First Meditation Descartes entertains a number of
possibilities that suggest that we might be mistaken about results that are
perfectly evident to us. One such possibility is that we have been created by
a supremely good God but that, for reasons unbeknownst to us, our nature
is such that we go wrong every time [we] add two and three or count the
sides of a square, or in some even simpler matter (AT 7:21, CSM 2:14).
Another is that we have not been created by God but have arrived at [our]
present state by fate or chance or a continuous chain of events (AT 7:21,
CSM 2:14). A third is that we are constantly deceived by a malicious demon
(AT 7:22, CSM 2:15). Descartes mentions all of these possibilities to set up
his Third Meditation point that until we know what made our minds, we are
not in a position to trust them and so not in a position to know anything at
all (AT 7:36, CSM 2:25). None of these is an actual possibility, though
Descartes allows that we may not appreciate this until later:

[Voetius claims that in my philosophy] God is thought of as a deceiver.

This is foolish. Although in my First Meditation I did speak of a supremely
powerful deceiver, the conception there was in no way of the true God,
since, as he himself says, it is impossible that the true God should be a
deceiver. But if is asked how he knows that this is impossible, he must
answer that he knows it from the fact that it implies a contradiction that
is, it cannot be conceived. (Letter to Voetius, May 1643, AT 8B:60)
Descartes of course holds that upon reflection it is obvious that God is a
necessary existent, and a necessary existent who cannot deceive (The Fifth
Meditation, AT 7:6670). We might have thought otherwise at the start of
inquiry, before we had carefully unpacked and examined our concepts, and
when we were not yet putting forward the a priori non-sensory claims that
are the only suitable premises for use in metaphysical arguments. As often
happens in philosophy, we come to recognize that there are things that
seem clear to us before we have thought them through and that the reason
why they seemed clear was that we hadn't thought them through. As
Descartes himself writes,

In order to philosophize seriously and search out the truth about the things
that are capable of being known, we must first of all lay aside all our
preconceived opinions, or at least we must take the greatest care not to put
our trust in any of the opinions accepted by us in the past until we have first
scrutinized them afresh and confirmed their truth. Next, we must give our
attention in an orderly way to the notions that we have within us, and we
must judge to be true all and only those whose truth we clearly and

distinctly recognize when we attend to them in this way. When we contrast

all this knowledge with the confused thoughts we had before, we will
acquire the habit of forming clear and distinct concepts of all the things that
can be known. These few instructions seem to me to contain the most
important principles of human knowledge. (Principles I:75, AT 8A:389, CSM
When we construct arguments on the basis of basic a priori principles of
metaphysics what Descartes calls primary notions (Second Replies, AT
7:14546, CSM 2:104; Principles I:50, AT 8A:2324, CSM 1:209) and not
the non a priori premises that constitute much of the early thinking of
Descartes' meditator, we recognize that God is a necessary existent who
cannot deceive and also that He is the independent and supreme creator of
all reality, both possible and actual (To [Mesland], 2 May 1644, AT 4:118
19, CSMK 235; To [Mersenne], 27 May 1630, AT 1:152, CSMK 25; Third
Meditation, AT 7:45, CSM 2:31). We know on a priori grounds that the
skeptical possibilities of the First Meditation do not exist. It turns out, upon
reflection, that God did not create them. This is not to say that the
possibilities exist but that they do not obtain or that God did not actualize
them, but instead to say that the possibilities themselves are not real that
they have no ontological status and so are not really possibilities at all. God
did not create the possibility that we exist with minds that might be certain
of things that are false; He did not create the possibility that we evolved
from chance; He did not create the possibility of an evil demon. None of
these possibilities exists automatically, and they do not exist just because
the cognitive deliverances of the First Meditation meditator tell us that they
do. When we (or the meditator) postulated their existence in the First
Meditation, we were being hasty, and all that we had to go on was our
confused conceptions.

Descartes is very explicit about the importance of employing (what some

might regard as a not completely honest) pedagogical method. In order to
maneuver his readers into a position in which they are able to understand
his metaphysics, he needs to help them to clear up their ideas. If he simply
tells us his view, we will hear it in terms of the confused ideas that (on his
view) it is imperative we discard. The view that we would walk away with
would not be Descartes' view but something else. Descartes therefore opts
for a special strategy for presenting his metaphysics: he puts things in terms
of the confusions that we understand, otherwise we will not understand him.
If we object (as does Gassendi) to this kind of maneuver, Descartes insists
that under the circumstances it is only appropriate. He says,

A philosopher would be no more surprised at such suppositions of falsity

than he would be if, in order to straighten out a curved stick, we bent it
round in the opposite direction. The philosopher knows that it is often useful
to assume falsehoods instead of truths in this way in order to shed light on
the truth (Fifth Replies, AT 7:34950, CSM 2:242).

Descartes does not see anything objectionable in guiding us to truth by way

of conceptions that are false or incoherent. Instead, he is providing a

[T]ake the case of someone who imagines a deceiving god even the true
God, but not yet clearly enough known to himself or to the others for whom
he frames his hypothesis. Let us suppose that he does not misuse this
fiction for the evil purpose of persuading others to believe something false
of the Godhead, but uses it only to enlighten the intellect, and bring greater
knowledge of God's nature to himself and to others. Such a person is in no
way sinning in order that good may come. There is no malice at all in his
action; he does something which is good in itself, and no one can rebuke
him for it except slanderously. (To Buitendijck 1643, AT 4:64, CSMK 230)
The possibilities that Descartes mentions early in the Meditations are not a
part of his ontology. When he talks about these, he is not interested in truth
but, rather, in helping his reader to move through and past confusion.[7]
Unless we are going to saddle Descartes with the view that it really is
possible that our minds are radically defective and that we ought to go on
reasoning anyway, we should conclude that Descartes holds that the
possibilities of the First Meditation were never created and that hence they
are nothing at all.

3. The Eternal Truths

Descartes is infamous for his doctrine of the creation of the eternal truths:

You ask me by what kind of causality God established the eternal truths. I
reply: by the same kind of causality as he created all things, that is to say,
as their efficient and total cause. (To [Mersenne], 27 May 1630, AT 1:152,
CSMK 25)
On the surface the position is baffling, especially when considered in
conjunction with Descartes' view that God is omnipotent. The author of Fifth
Objections, Pierre Gassendi, complained that the view is very difficult to
conceive. Descartes' reply is interesting:

You say that you think it is very hard to propose that there is anything
immutable and eternal apart from God. You would be right to think this if I
was talking about existing things, or if I was proposing something as
immutable in the sense that its immutability was independent of God. But
just as the poets suppose that the Fates were originally established by
Jupiter, but that after they were established he bound himself to abide by
them, so I do not think that the essences of things, and the mathematical
truths which we can know concerning them, are independent of God.
Nevertheless I do think that they are immutable and eternal, since the will
and decree of God willed and decreed that they should be so. Whether you

think this is hard or easy to accept, it is enough for me that it is true. (Fifth
Replies, AT 7:380, CSM 2:261)
Descartes holds that each and every thing depends on God for its existence
and that, as things, eternal truths depend on God as well. One of Gassendi's
worries is that if God can do anything and thus can alter any item that He
creates, nothing that He creates is immutable.

Another reason that Descartes' view is difficult to conceive is that Descartes

takes eternal truths to be necessary. That is, it is difficult to conceive how
eternal truths could be necessary if they were created by a free act of God.
Descartes is clear that the eternal truths are necessary: he says that the
necessity of these truths does not surpass our knowledge (To Mersenne, 6
May 1630, AT 1:150, CSMK 25). If eternal truths are necessary, however, it
should not be the case that they could have been otherwise. Yet Descartes'
commitment to divine omnipotence appears to commit him to this view:

You ask what necessitated God to create these truths; and I reply that he
was free to make it not true that all the radii of the circle are equal just as
free as he was not to create the world. And it is certain that these truths are
no more necessarily attached to his essence than are other created things.
(To [Mersenne], 27 May 1630, AT 1:152, CSMK 25)
It appears that something in Descartes' comments about the eternal truths
has to give. It might be that, since Descartes is clearly not prepared to
adjust his commitment to divine omnipotence, he instead abandons his view
that they are necessary.[8] On this interpretation, developed and defended
by Harry Frankfurt, all eternal truths are inherently contingent because they
could have been false, and they could have been false because God could
have made their contradictories true. Frankfurt's interpretation is motivated
not only by Descartes' commitment to divine omnipotence; there are also
some texts:

God cannot have been determined to make it true that contradictories

cannot be true together, and therefore he could have done the opposite.
I do not think that we should ever say of anything that it cannot be brought
about by God. For since every basis of truth and goodness depends on his
omnipotence, I would not dare to say that God cannot make a mountain
without a valley, or bring it about that 1 and 2 are not 3.[10]
If Frankfurt is right, Cartesian eternal truths are not really necessary; they
are inherently as contingent as any other propositions (42). They may
appear to be necessary to our rational faculties, but this is just a function of
the makeup of our rational faculties and not of the necessity of the truths
themselves. Frankfurt then argues more generally that Descartes holds that
for all we know our rational faculties may be wrong about other things as
well. There is a way that reality appears from the viewpoint of the clearest

of human reasoning, and the best that we can do as rational agents is to

take up that viewpoint. But we can never get outside of it to see how things
are absolutely.[11]

If Descartes holds that eternal truths are necessary in any robust sense,
Frankfurt's view has an obvious drawback. It also suffers from the problem
that it cannot be formulated without supposing that Descartes would allow
that human minds can know that there is a perspective from which eternal
truths can be seen to be contingent, but an important component of
Frankfurt's view is the thesis that Descartes thinks that it is part of the
structure of a human mind to regard eternal truths as wholly necessary. The
most serious drawback for Frankfurt's view, however, is that it is selfcontradictory in postulating that, according to Descartes, we cannot make
claims about what reality is like absolutely. The central tenet that is driving
Frankfurt's interpretation is that on Descartes' view God is omnipotent in the
sense that He can do anything imaginable. He created the eternal truths
that are in fact with us, and He could have done otherwise. All of these are
claims about God and what God is like absolutely.

An alternative view (developed and defended by Edwin Curley) is that

Descartes holds that eternal truths are necessary, but that they are not
necessarily so. On this reading, Descartes' view involves iterated modalities:
a number of truths are possibly necessary, but God chooses only some of
these possibilities to be the actual necessary truths.[12] One of the
passages that supports such a reading is from the already-cited letter to

And even if God has willed that some truths should be necessary, this does
not mean that he willed them necessarily; for it is one thing to will that they
be necessary, and quite another to will this necessarily, or to be
necessitated to will it.[13]
On Curley's reading, Descartes secures the necessity of eternal truths by
arguing that God willed them to be necessary, and hence it can be said that
it is false that they could have been otherwise. But Descartes also holds that
God created the possibility that they not be necessary, and that is why they
are not necessarily necessary, as it could have been the case that they
could have been otherwise. Some commentators have argued that a
problem for Curley's view is that it cannot allow Descartes to hold that
eternal truths are absolutely necessary if it could have been the case that
a given truth could have been otherwise then it is not a necessary truth.[14]
Another problem is that Curley's view appears to put a severe constraint on
divine omnipotence: if God wants to make an eternal truth false, He cannot
make it false without first willing that it not be necessary, for a necessary
truth cannot be made false. If God alters the status of the truth so that it is
no longer a necessary truth, He can make it false, but He cannot make it
false straightaway. A final problem is that Curley's reading supposes that

there is some point at which God's will could have been otherwise, but God
is eternal, and part of His essential perfection is to be wholly immutable
(Principles II:36, AT 8A:62).

An alternative reading of Descartes' comments on the eternal truths

suggests still another interpretation. Jonathan Bennett has pointed out that
in some of the key passages in question Descartes does not say that God
can make contradictories true but that we should not say that God cannot
make contradictories true (Bennett 1994, 65355). In such passages, for
example in the already-cited 1648 letter to Arnauld, Descartes is not saying
anything about God's power but about us and what we ought not say.
Presumably, he is just invoking his Fourth Meditation rule for judging in
these passages, as he is very explicit that when we do metaphysics we
ought not affirm what we do not clearly and distinctly understand.[15] Since
we do not come close to understanding what it would be for one and two to
add up to something other than three, and since we do not understand
God's being unable to do something, the prospect that God cannot make 1
and 2 not add to 3 is hopelessly confused. Accordingly, we ought not speak
of it. The same analysis also applies to the important passage in the
Mesland letter. Immediately after saying that God can make contradictories
true together, Descartes takes it back: even if this be true, we should not
try to comprehend it, since our nature is incapable of doing so. Descartes'
claim that God can make contradictories true is something that we ought
not affirm when doing metaphysics and thus something that should have no
bearing on our interpretation of Descartes' system. Perhaps Descartes'
initial comments (about God's power to make contradictories true) are just
an expression of faith and devotion, in an attempt to gesture at His
greatness and perfection. But his official reason for the retraction is more
telling. Descartes writes,

But if we would know the immensity of his power we should not put these
thoughts before our minds, nor should we conceive any precedence or
priority between his intellect and his will; for the idea which we have of God
teaches us that there is in him only a single activity, entirely simple and
entirely pure. (AT 4:119)
This claim also calls to mind the passage in the Third Meditation in which
Descartes says that in God there is absolutely nothing that is potential (AT
7:47, CSM 2:32). If there is just a single activity in God, and if it is simple
and eternal, and also immutable, then it makes no sense to talk of God as
changing course and actualizing an alternative set of possibilities aside from
than the one that actually obtains. There do not exist alternative possible
eternal truths, and there does not exist the possibility of a change in God's
eternal and immutable will, and so (contra Frankfurt et al) eternal truths are
absolutely necessary.

Another consideration to mention in favor of the view that Descartes holds

that eternal truths are absolutely necessary is that it is sensitive to the
important worry raised by Broughton (1987) and Nadler (1987) that
Descartes should not say that physical laws follow from God's nature and so
are absolutely necessary, in a way that has them admitting of more
necessity than the truths of mathematics and geometry. If anything, we
would expect the story to go the other way around that eternal truths
would be necessary and that physical laws would be wholly contingent. In
Descartes' system it would appear that laws of physics are necessary and
that eternal truths are necessary as well.

Still we need to contend with the passage in which Descartes says that God
was free to make the radii of a circle unequal, and with the passages in
which Descartes says more generally that God is free with respect to each
and every thing that He does. One way to read these passages is to make
the assumption that Descartes has a libertarian conception of divine
freedom and then conclude that if Descartes says that God is free to do
something, there exists the possibility that He do it and also the possibility
that He do something else (perhaps the opposite).[16] Descartes himself
appears to understand divine freedom in very different terms. He writes,

As for the freedom of the will, the way in which it exists in God is quite
different from the way in which it exists in us. It is self-contradictory to
suppose that the will of God was not indifferent from eternity with respect to
everything that has happened or will ever happen; for it is impossible to
imagine that anything is thought of in the divine intellect as good or true, or
worthy of belief or action or omission, prior to the decision of the divine will
to make it so. (Sixth Replies, AT 7:43132, CSM 2:291)
Descartes holds that God is free in creating the eternal truth about the radii
of a circle. If God's freedom in this and other cases just consists in His
complete indifference and independence, then the Cartesian claim that God
is free do x does not entail that there exists the possibility that God not do x
or that there exists the possibility that God do something else. As Descartes
makes very clear, such possibilities exist only if God takes the extra step of
creating them.

Descartes makes a number of otherwise puzzling claims about God's

freedom to create the eternal truths, but if we interpret these in the light of
Descartes' stated conception of divine freedom, they begin to look fairly
mundane. A problem, however, is that taken together the claims encourage
the reading that Descartes is a necessitarian. We consider for example the
following comment that Descartes makes to Mersenne:

It will be said that if God had established these truths he could change them
as a king changes his laws. To this the answer is: Yes he can, if his will can

change. But I understand them to be eternal and unchangeable. I make

the same judgment about God. But his will is free. Yes, but his power is
beyond our grasp. (To Mersenne, 15 April 1630, AT 1:14546, CSMK 23).
Here Descartes allows that there exists the possibility that God create
alternate eternal truths only if God's will is mutable, but of course Descartes
holds that God's will is wholly immutable, and immutable for eternity. God is
still free of course, but in a way that squares with His immutability: divine
freedom is to be understood in terms of indifference and independence. The
worry that is starting to arise is that if God is the immutable and eternal
author of all reality the eternal truths and everything else that exists
then there does not exist the possibility that God will an alternate series of
creatures, and hence God does not create that possibility, but instead
everything that happens happens necessarily. Descartes subscribes to a
version of the Spinozistic view that divine freedom is a matter of
indifference,[17] and there is now some systematic evidence that Descartes
accepts the Spinozistic doctrine of necessitarianism. As Descartes
recognizes in the 15 April 30 letter to Mersenne, we might encounter some
cognitive dissonance in recognizing God's freedom as omnipotence.[18] He
appears to subscribe to the view that the eternal truths are necessary and
that everything else that happens is necessary as well.[19] As he is reported
to have said in Conversation with Burman:

Concerning ethics and religion, the opinion has prevailed that God can be
altered, because of the prayers of mankind; for no one would have prayed to
God if he knew, or had convinced himself, that God was unalterable. From
the metaphysical point of view, however, it is quite unintelligible that God
should be anything but completely unalterable. It is irrelevant that the
decrees could have been separated from God; indeed, this should not really
be asserted. For although God is completely indifferent with respect to all
things, he necessarily made the decrees he did, since he necessarily willed
what was best, even though it was of his own will that he did what was best.
We should not make a separation here between the necessity and the
indifference that apply to God's decrees; although his actions were
completely indifferent, they were also completely necessary. Then again,
although we may conceive that the decrees could have been separated from
God, this is merely a token procedure of our own reasoning: the distinction
thus introduced between God himself and his decrees is a mental, not a real
one. In reality the decrees could not have been separated from God: he is
not prior to them or distinct from them, nor could he have existed without
them. (AT 5:166, CSMK 348)
If Descartes holds in the final analysis that everything that happens happens
necessarily, it is easy to see how he can hold that eternal truths are
necessary and created by a God that is free (in the Cartesian sense).
However, Descartes will still have to contend with the objection that there
are texts in which he seems to be committed to the existence of
unactualized possibilities and, in particular, texts in which he appears to be
committed to a non-compatibilist view of human freedom.[20]

Thus far we have considered the interpretive issue of whether or not

Descartes' eternal truths could have been otherwise. A question that still
remains to be considered concerns the ontological status of Descartes'
eternal truths, regardless of whether or not they could have been otherwise.

One view is that since Descartes' eternal truths are neither finite mental
things, finite physical things, nor God, they must be something akin to
Platonic forms.[21] A problem with this view, of course, is that it does
violence to Descartes' parsimonious dualism. Another problem with the view
is that Descartes says that eternal truths are beings which have no
existence outside our thought (Principles I:48, AT 8A:23, CSM 1:208).

A second view is that eternal truths are to be located in God.[22] One of the
merits of this view is that it provides for eternal truths to be eternal in a very
robust sense. God is eternal, and anything else is eternal if it is housed in
His eternal mind. Still, the view conflicts with the fact that Descartes holds
that eternal truths are creatures and are housed in finite minds.

A third reading of Descartes on eternal truths is that they are ideas in finite
minds. If truth is the conformity of thought with its object (To Mersenne, 16
October 1639, AT 2:597, CSMK 139), then eternal truths are ideas. But
Descartes has also said that eternal truths have no existence outside of our
thought. They are true ideas, but not true ideas in the mind of God because
eternal truths are creatures. A problem with this reading, however, is that,
although it allows eternal truths to be truths, it is not clear that it allows
them to be eternal.[23] In some passages Descartes does distance himself
from the appellation eternal truth: he refers to those truths which are
called eternal (To Mersenne, 27 May 1638, AT 2:138, CSMK 103) and to
[t]he mathematical truths which you call eternal (To Mersenne, 15 April
1630, AT 1:145, CSMK 23). And he allows that things can be identified as
eternal so long as they are always the same (Fifth Replies, AT 7:381, CSM
2:262). So a deflationary view of the eternality of Cartesian eternal truths
might be in order. However, Descartes says to Mersenne that from all
eternity [God] willed them [eternal truths] to be, and by that very fact he
created them (To [Mersenne], 27 May 1630, AT 1:152, CSMK 25). Here
Descartes appears to attribute to eternal truths an eternality that they
cannot have if they have no existence outside of our thought.[24] Perhaps a
compromise interpretation would be that Descartes holds that God has
willed the series of creatures from eternity and that some of these creatures
are truths that are always the same once created.

4. Unactualized Possibles
Descartes is unambiguous that there are some things that we clearly and
distinctly perceive to be possible. To Mersenne he speaks of beings whose

existence we clearly perceive to be possible (To Mersenne, March 1642, AT

3:54445, CSMK 211); he also says that God can bring about everything
that I clearly and distinctly recognize as possible (Fourth Replies, AT 7:219,
CSM 2:154). In First Replies he says that

we must distinguish between possible and necessary existence. It must be

noted that possible existence is contained in the concept or idea of
everything that we clearly and distinctly understand; but in no case is
necessary existence so contained except in the case of the idea of God.[25]
In addition, he says to Mesland that our mind is finite and so created as to
be able to perceive as possible things which God has wished to be in fact
possible.[26] The interpretive issue here is what Descartes is talking about
when he speaks in such terms. One interpretation that immediately
suggests itself is that Descartes holds that there are things or states of
affairs that, though not actual, are counterfactually possible.[27] A number
of considerations speak in favor of such a reading. One is that Descartes'
view that mind and body are really distinct appears to be the view that
minds and bodies that are in fact united can exist apart.[28] Another is that
Descartes says that we have clear and distinct perceptions of possible
existence and of what is possible, thus making it appear that he holds that
God's creatures include not only actuals but also unactualized possibles.[29]
Finally, this sort of reading fits Descartes within a long tradition of figures
like Scotus and Brandwardine who posit possible being to secure the
meaning and reference of claims about things that could be but aren't.[30] If
Descartes wants to make claims about unactualized possibles and if he does
not want those claims to be non-sensical, unactualized possibles need to
have some kind of ontological status in his system.

Descartes may in fact be committed to attributing reality to unactualized

possibles, but a few interpretive problems arise if he does. One is that
Descartes says elsewhere that unactualized being is nothing. In the Third
Meditation, he argues that the objective reality of the idea of God cannot
have been caused by potential perfections towards which a finite being
might be evolving because potentialities are nothing and so have no causal
power. He says,

I perceive that the objective being of an idea cannot be produced merely

by potential being, which strictly speaking is nothing, but only by actual or
formal being. (AT 7:47, CSM 2:32)
If Descartes holds that potential being is nothing, then it is difficult to see
how he can include unactualized possibles in his ontology.

Another interpretive problem is that it is difficult to see exactly where

possible reality would fit into Descartes' ontology. For Descartes, all reality
depends for its existence on God even possible reality (To [Mesland], 2

May 1644, AT 4:1189, CSMK 235). A possible being is thus a creature with
an ontological status. Descartes holds that truth is the conformity of thought
with its object, that [t]ruth consists in being (To Clerselier, 23 April 1649,
AT 5:356, CSMK 377), and that true ideas are ideas of real things (The
Third Meditation, AT 7:43, CSM 2:30). Clear and distinct perceptions of
possibilities conform to reality and are of real things; they have a truthmaker. A clearly and distinctly perceived possibility has some ontological
status, and the question is what exactly that is. This is a question on which
the Descartes literature has been largely silent, but the options would
appear to be that possibilities are either creatures or ideas in the mind of

If possible beings are creatures, there is some difficulty in making room for
them in Descartes' ontology. Descartes is fairly clear that the only creatures
that exist are finite minds and bodies and their modes:

I recognize only two ultimate classes of things: first, intellectual of thinking

things, i.e. those which pertain to mind or thinking substance; and secondly,
material things, i.e. those which pertain to extended substance or body.
Perception, volition and all the modes both of perceiving and willing are
referred to thinking substance; while to extended substance belong size
(that is, extension in length, breadth and depth), shape, motion, position,
divisibility of component parts and the like.[31]
One category of being in Descartes' ontology is thinking substance (and its
modes), and another is extended substance (and its modes). If Descartes'
possibles are just created thinking or extended substances, then presumably
they are actuals and not possibles.

Of course, one might suggest that Descartes' dualism entails that there are
two kinds of things thinking things and material things -- but that in each
of these classes there are substances with actual existence and also
substances with possible existence. On such a view, the class of thinking
substances (for example) includes thinking substances with actual existence
and thinking substances with possible existence.

There are a couple of problems with this view, however. One is that
Descartes holds that it follows from God's essence that God is eternal and
that His will is wholly immutable (The Third Meditation, AT 7:45, CSM 2:31;
Principles I:56, AT 8A:26, CSM 1:211; To Mersenne, 15 April 1630, AT
1:1456, CSMK 23; Principles II:36, AT 8A:61, CSM 1:24). If it is a necessary
truth that God is eternal and that His will is immutable, then there does not
exist the possibility that God's eternal will could have been other than it is.
So that possibility does not exist; and neither does it appear that there exist
any possible creatures. Descartes holds that there is a single series that God
preordains and that is (as would be expected) immutable (Principles I:4041,

AT 8A:20, CSM 1:206). If God created things that were merely possible, it is
unclear how He would be able to actualize them instead of the things that
are actualized in the series, if none of the requisite possibilities exist, and so
it is unclear how they would constitute possibilities. These alleged
possibilities (if they are anything) would be among all of the other creatures;
they would be actuals.

It might of course be the case that Descartes just insists that there are
possible existents in addition to actual existents. Alternately, it might be the
case that like Spinoza (in Ethics Part IV, definitions three and four),
Descartes uses the expression possible existence to describe actuallyexisting creatures, and in a way that is consistent with a denial of non-actual
reality. For example, in some places Descartes identifies things as having
possible existence to highlight that they are dependent creatures, and
creatures whose existence cannot be read straight from their concept. To
describe the kind of existence had by finite creatures generally, he uses
possible existence and contingent existence interchangeably: he
sometimes speaks of the beings that depend on God for their existence as
having possible or contingent existence (Second Replies, AT 7:166, CSM
2:117; Notae, AT 8B:361, CSM 1:306), and sometimes he speaks of them as
having just contingent existence (Principles I:15, AT 8A:10, CSM 1:198).
When he says that creatures have possible or contingent existence, he
identifies the two kinds of existence: possible or [vel] contingent
existence. If contingent existence is just the kind of existence had by
beings that depend for their existence on God's will and whose existence
cannot be established by an analysis of their concept alone (Fifth Meditation,
AT 7:6366, CSM 2:4446; Rules for the Direction of the Mind, AT 10:42122,
CSM 1:4546), then the fact that a thing has possible existence in Descartes'
ontology does not suggest that the thing does not actually exist. Such a
thing exists, but in a way that has it wholly dependent on God. Descartes
also suggests this definition of possible existence when he contrasts
necessary existence with the kind of existence had by creatures in First
Replies: unlike necessary existence, the existence had by a creature is
marked by the fact that it has no power to create itself or maintain itself in
existence (AT 7:118, CSM 2:84). It might be that like some of his
predecessors Descartes is using possible existence to describe a kind of
being had by actually existing things.[32]

If possibilities are not creatures that exist in addition to thinking substances

and extended substances, another interpretive option is to say that they are
ideas in the mind of God, but that God does not actualize. This interpretive
option is precluded by Descartes' commitment to the identity of God's will,
intellect, and creative activity:

in God, willing, understanding, and creating are all the same thing without
one being prior to the other even conceptually. (To Mersenne, 27 May
1630, AT 1:152, CSMK 2526)

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. (To Mersenne, 6 May 1630, AT 1:149, CSMK 24)
A philosopher like Leibniz will insist on a distinction between God's
understanding and will so as to secure the existence of things in God's
understanding that God does not actually create. A philosopher like Spinoza
will point out that a thinker who is committed to the identity of God's will
and intellect is committed to the view that there is nothing that God
understands that God does not create. Spinoza will add that such a thinker
is not restricting God's omnipotence if God is the cause of all being and if
alleged unactualized possibilities are outside the scope of God's intellect
and will. Descartes appears to be siding with Spinoza here: what is not the
object of God's understanding is nothing at all, and what is the object of
God's understanding is created and made actual.[33] If Descartes is
seriously committed to the identity of God's intellect and will, it is difficult to
see how he can also be committed to the existence of unactualized

There are a number of passages in which Descartes speaks of what is

possible. To fix an interpretation of these passages, we can look to a number
of different places. One is common-sense. We might argue that any view is
crazy that does not admit that there are things that could happen or exist
but that do not. Since Descartes is not crazy, what he must mean when he
speaks of the possible is unactualized being. Or, we might argue that
Descartes is continuing in the tradition of thinkers who clearly do posit
unactualized possibles. If these figures include unactualized being within
their ontologies, and if Descartes is building on their work, then his claims
about the possible are about unactualized being. Or, we might attempt to
isolate parts of Descartes' system that have a bearing on what possible
might mean in his system. Parts of this system entail that possible
existence is just the actual existence of dependent beings. If by possible
existence Descartes just means the dependent existence of actually
existing creatures, then passages in which Descartes speaks of a thing as
being possible or having possible existence are not evidence that Descartes
holds that there are things that could be but are not. Of course, it might just
be the case that Descartes has reason to help himself to entities that the
rest of his system shuts out.

If Descartes does hold that there are things that could be but are not, his
view still demands the important qualification discussed in the first section
above. He of course realizes that in everyday discourse we speak of things
that can happen but don't. However, if our understanding of these things is
not clear and distinct, and if our understanding of them as possible is not
clear and distinct, then Descartes will not introduce them as possibilities.
Descartes appreciates that according to common ways of speaking, all kinds
of things are possible. He considers this concept of possible after Mersenne
introduces it in Second Objections:

If by possible you mean what everyone commonly means, namely

whatever does not conflict with our human concepts, then it is manifest
that the nature of God, as I have described it, is possible in this sense.
(Second Replies, AT 7:150, CSM 2:107)
Here Descartes might seem to be offering a theory of possibility according
to which what it means for something to be possible is just for it to be
conceivable.[34] However, this cannot be Descartes' view. Descartes holds
that whatever we clearly and distinctly perceive is true and that truth is the
conformity of thought with its object (To Mersenne, 16 October 1639, AT
2:597, CSMK 139). If a possibility that we are considering is clearly and
distinctly perceived, then our clear and distinct perception conforms to
reality, and the possibility that we are conceiving is not merely conceptual.
Instead, there is also an object to which the clear and distinct perception
conforms the sort of thing posited by commentators who argue that
Descartes holds that God's creation consists not only of actuals but of
unactualized possibles. Thus, for any possibility of which we have a
conception, if there is no object to which that conception conforms that is,
if the possibility exists only in thought the possibility is not clearly and
distinctly perceived. Possibilities which exist only in thought are not part of
Descartes' ontology and so on Descartes' view are not possibilities at all.
Descartes' remarks to Mersenne actually bear this out. He is indeed
considering the view of possibility as conceivability, but in doing so he is
merely acknowledging what everyone commonly means by possible.
Descartes sometimes speaks of the possible as clearly and distinctly
perceived. It is on these passages that any interpretation of Descartes'
views on possibility must be built.

5. Real Distinction
Any interpretation of Descartes' views on modality needs to be sensitive to
his view that mind and body are really distinct. The conclusion of his Sixth
Meditation argument for substance dualism is that I am really distinct from
my body, and can exist without it (AT 7:78, CSM 2:54). A natural reading of
Descartes' conclusion has him saying that, for any minds and bodies that
are united, it is counterfactually possible that they be separated.[35] His
argument would be as follows:

I clearly and distinctly understand mind apart from body and body apart
from mind.
God can bring about whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive.
God can bring about that mind is apart from body and body is apart from
If God can bring about that mind is apart from body and body is apart from
mind, then mind and body can exist apart.

Mind and body can exist apart.

Such a reading is sensitive not only to Descartes' Sixth Meditation
comments but also to his further remarks on real distinction in Fourth
Replies. There Descartes says that for establishing a real distinction it is
sufficient that two things can be understood as complete and that each
one can be understood apart from the other (AT 7:221, CSM 2:156). A thing
is complete, for Descartes, when it is a substance:

[B]y a complete thing I simply mean a substance endowed with the

forms or attributes which enable me to recognize that it is a substance. (AT
7:222, CSM 2:156)
Since a Cartesian substance is a thing that is ontologically independent
(Principles I:5152), a complete thing is an ontologically independent thing.
When we clearly and distinctly perceive mind and body to be complete, we
know that they are substances. When we still clearly and distinctly perceive
them to be substances after clearly and distinctly perceiving them apart
from each other, we know that they are not the same substance under
different descriptions. On this view, Descartes holds that mind and body are
ontologically independent substances, and their distinctness consists in their
ability to continue to exist even after God separates them.[36]

An alternative interpretation of Descartes on the real distinction between

mind and body reads the distinction as consisting in the ontological
independence of mind and body, but not in their separability.[37] Descartes
holds that a sufficient condition for establishing a real distinction between
two things is clearly and distinctly perceiving them to be non-identical
substances (Synopsis of these following six Meditations, AT 7:13, CSM 2:9;
Fourth Replies, AT 7:221223, CSM 2:15658). If so, he holds that the
substantiality of two non-identical substances does not consist in their being
separable but is just an indication of their separability.[38] On this view,
mind and body are separable for Descartes; it's just that their separability is
a consequence of the (different) fact that they are really distinct.[39]

A third reading of the Cartesian real distinction stresses the difficulty in

making room for unactualized possibilities in Descartes' system. The reading
also highlights that Descartes holds that our clear and distinct perceptions
are veridical but says (in his proof of real distinction) that God can bring
about whatever we clearly and distinctly perceive. Descartes is clear in
other texts that the reason why he mentions God's power in the proof of real
distinction is to remind us that no matter how unlikely we think it is that our
intimately united minds and bodies could also be really distinct, God has
enough power to have made all of our clear and distinct perceptions

You agree that thought is an attribute of a substance which contains no

extension, and conversely that extension is an attribute of a substance that
contains no thought. So you must also agree that a thinking substance is
distinct from an extended substance. For the only criterion we have enabling
us to know that one substance differs from another is that we understand
one apart from the other. And God can surely bring about whatever we can
clearly understand; the only things that are said to be impossible for God to
do are those which involve a conceptual contradiction, that is, which are not
intelligible. But we can clearly understand a thinking substance that is not
extended, and an extended substance that does not think, as you agree.[40]
In Fourth Replies Descartes say that his reason for mentioning God's power
in the Sixth Meditation proof of real distinction is to remind his reader that
our clear and distinct perceptions are veridical (AT 7:226, CSM 2:159). In the
Sixth Meditation itself he arrives at a clear and distinct perception of mind
as an immaterial substance and body as a material non-thinking substance
and is immediately struck by the union of his mind and body: It is true that
I may have a body that is very closely joined to me (AT 7:78, CSM 2:54).
He says that nevertheless his mind and body are really distinct. Descartes
appreciates that the facts of mind-body union and mind-body separation are
opposed.[41] In the context of demonstrating the real distinction between
mind and body he reminds us that God's power is such that there can be
creatures that have nothing in common but that are intimately united.[42]

If we take seriously the consideration that there is no room in Descartes'

ontology for unactualized possibilities, the real distinction between mind and
body does not amount to their counterfactual separation.[43] God has willed
the series of creatures from eternity, and the claim that mind and body can
exist apart might amount to the claim that when a given mind and body are
separated in the series, each is ontologically independent and so continues
to exist.[44] That is, instead of reflecting that there is anything more in
Descartes' ontology than what is contained in the series that God wills and
preordains, the claim that mind and body can exist apart might amount to
Descartes' note in Synopsis of these following six Meditations that in the
Sixth Meditation he is attempting to re-assure us that the decay of the
body does not imply the destruction of them mind (AT 7:13, CSM 1:10).

If Descartes holds that potential being is strictly speaking nothing, and if his
ontology and his commitment to divine immutability, divine preordination,
and (his particular conception of) omnipotence bar possibilities from his
system, it is not exactly clear what to make of the possibility of mind and
body existing in separation. One view is that Descartes is committed to the
reality of this possibility and that, with his commitment to other possibilities,
this commitment is part of a pattern of Descartes' helping himself to entities
that his system does not allow. That is, it might be the case that Descartes
wants his system to be rich enough to posit possibilities and that, when it
isn't, he posits them anyway. Or, it might be the case that because the
Meditations does not attempt to analyze (and then refine) the meditator's

pre-Meditations view of modality, the can in Descartes' claim that mind

and body can exist apart is the not fully analyzed can of the vernacular.

6. Possibility and Human Freedom

The whole project of the Fourth Meditation would appear to suggest that
Descartes is committed to the view that human beings can do something
other than what God preordains. The Fourth Meditation tells us that error is
avoidable, that we err not as as a result of the way that we are constructed
but as a result of our mis-use of one of the faculties that God has provided
us, and that to avoid error we must refrain from affirming what we do not
perceive clearly and distinctly.

But there are passages in Descartes' corpus that make a surface reading of
the Fourth Meditation problematic. One is of course the Principles I:4041
text in which Descartes says that God pre-ordains everything from eternity.
He does admit that we can easily get ourselves into great difficulties if we
attempt to reconcile this divine preordination with the freedom of our will, or
attempt to grasp both these things at once (AT 8A:20, CSM 1:206). But this
just means that he himself appreciates the problem.

There are other difficult texts as well:

[P]hilosophy by itself is able to discover that the slightest thought could

not enter a person's mind without God's willing, and having willed from all
eternity, that it should so enter. ...When Your Highness speaks of the
particular providence of God as being the foundation of theology, I do not
think that you have in mind some change in God's decrees occasioned by
actions that depend on our free will. No such change is theologically
tenable; and when we are told to pray to God, that is not so that we should
inform him of our needs, or that we should try to get him to change
anything in the order established from all eternity by his providence...[,] but
simply to obtain whatever he has from all eternity, willed to be obtained by
our prayers. (To Princess Elisabeth, 6 October 1645, AT 4:3146, CSMK
As for free will, I agree that if we think only of ourselves we cannot help
regarding ourselves as independent; but when we think of the infinite power
of God, we cannot help believing that all things depend on him, and hence
that our free will is not exempt from this dependence. The independence
which we experience and feel in ourselves, and which suffices to make our
actions praiseworthy or blameworthy, is not incompatible with a
dependence of quite another kind, whereby all things are subject to God.
(To Princess Elisabeth, 3 November 1645, AT 4:3323, CSMK 277)

Henceforth, because he [the man who meditates upon God] knows that
nothing can befall him which God has not decreed, he no longer fears death,
pain or disgrace. He so loves this divine decree, deems it so just and so
necessary, and knows that he must be so completely subject to it that even
when he expects it to bring death or some other evil, he would not will to
change it even if, per impossible, he could do so. (To Chanut, 1 February
1647, AT 4:609, CSMK 310)
In the Principles I:4041 discussion, Descartes appeals to divine
incomprehensibility to make sense of how human freedom and divine
preordination are to be reconciled. God is infinitely powerful, and He
somehow made a universe in which it is true both that human beings are
free and that God has preordained everything from eternity (AT 8A:20, CSM
1:206). Perhaps we should just assume that Descartes thinks that human
freedom is inconsistent with divine pre-ordination and that we cannot make
sense of human freedom (except by appeal to divine incomprehensibility).

Another interpretive option is to emphasize that in Principles 1:4041

Descartes is saying only that our experience of freedom and independence
is in tension with divine pre-ordination (Cunning 2010, 138-42). There is a
way in which our experience of freedom is perfectly consistent with divine
pre-ordination, of course, if God has immutably decreed all of our mental life
for all eternity and if our mental life includes some experiences and not
others. But it might seem puzzling why we have an experience of freedom
at all. Still, if Descartes allows that human freedom itself is consistent with
divine pre-ordination, then he is not a libertarian but a compatibilist.

Passages outside of the Meditations might be easily read as consistent with

the view that for Descartes there does not exist any unactualized possible
reality, but the view appears not to square with many of the claims of the
Fourth Meditation. The Meditation does contain compatibilist-sounding
claims -- for example, that the will is maximally free when it is compelled to
affirm truth (AT 7:58, CSM 2:40); that it would be impossible for us to be in a
state of indifference if we had distinct perceptions only (ibid.); and that
assent and dissent are a matter of the will being pulled and compelled by
reasons (AT 7:59; CSM 2:41). However, the whole point of the Fourth
Meditation would seem to be that God is imperfect if our errors (and false
affirmations) are inevitable, and thus that on any given occasion it is always
possible for us to affirm or deny. A compatibilist reading of the Fourth
Meditation resolution of the problem of error has to emphasize the following
(Cunning 2010, chapter five): that much of the Fourth Meditation is fully
compatibilist; that the Meditation provides reasons that push and compel
the will to refrain from affirming perceptions that are not clear and distinct;
that the Meditation provides reasons that compel the will to affirm that
whatever we perceive to be fully evident is true; that Descartes insists that
upon further reflection (that occurs beyond the Meditations) it is clear that
the entirety of our mental lives depends on God's eternal and immutable will
and that, as a result, nothing that happens (including pain and death, and

presumably error) is bad; that something (like error) can be the outcome of
God's will even if God does not will it directly; and that Descartes' Fourth
Meditation meditator is not yet a full-blown Cartesian.

A final issue to consider in the context of discussing Descartes' view on

human freedom is the issue of the extent to which finite minds are
compelled or drawn to affirm clear and distinct perceptions. There are a
number of texts in which Descartes reflects that view that finite minds are
wholly unable to refrain from affirming a clear and distinct perception.[46]
Indeed, we might think that the only way that we would be able to know
that God's non-deceiverhood secures the truth of clear and distinct
perceptions is if those perceptions are utterly compelled. There are
passages, however, in which Descartes appears to reflect the view that it is
within the power of the will to refrain from affirming a clear and distinct
perception. One is Principles I:37, in which Descartes says that when we
embrace the truth, our doing so voluntarily is much more to our credit than
would be the case if we could not do otherwise (AT 8A:19, CSM 1:205). But
this passage is especially odd given that only a few lines later in Principles
I:43 Descartes offers one of his statements of the view that we are unable to
doubt clear and distinct perceptions (in which we are embracing the

Another passage in which Descartes appears to reflect the view that it is

within the power of a finite will to refrain from affirming a clear and distinct
perception is in To [Mesland], 9 February 1645. There Descartes writes

absolutely speaking it is always open to us to hold back from pursuing a

clearly known good, or from admitting a clearly perceived truth, provided we
consider it a good thing to demonstrate the freedom of our will by so doing.
(AT 4:173, CSMK 245)
An examination of the larger context of this passage in the shows that it is
not in fact evidence that Descartes holds that it is within the power of a
finite will to refrain from affirming a clear and distinct perception. In the
previous letter to Mesland Descartes had said that

I agree with you when you say that we can suspend our judgment; but I
tried to explain in what manner this can be done. For it seems to me certain
that a great light in the intellect is followed by a great inclination in the will;
so that if we see very clearly that a thing is good for us, it is very difficult
and on my view impossible, as long as one continues in the same thought
to stop the course of our desire. To [Mesland], 2 May 1644, AT 4:1156,
CSMK 233)
Descartes' view that clear and distinct perceptions are will-compelling is the
view that so long as the intellect has a clear and distinct idea, it is

impossible for the will to refrain from affirming it. What it is for a finite mind
to clearly and distinctly perceive X is for its intellect to have a clear and
distinct idea of X and for its will to affirm X, but while the intellect is
presenting this clear and distinct idea, the will cannot stop affirming it to
turn its attention to something else. Instead, another idea must be put in
place of the clear and distinct idea, and by something other than the will.
[48] As Descartes says by way of qualification in the February 1645 letter,
we suspend judgment when something else distracts the will from a clear
and distinct idea (AT 4:173, CSMK 245) for example the desire to exhibit
our freedom.[49]

It is tempting to assume that Descartes accepts the Spinozistic view that the
will is at the mercy of the clarity with which the intellect has ideas. (Of
course, in Spinoza's language the view is that there is no distinction
between will and intellect and that to the extent that we understand
something our will is drawn to affirm it.) Descartes appears to accept this
view in the case of clear and distinct ideas at least, and it would make sense
for him to think that the compellingness of truth and goodness does not
disappear when our grasp of it is slightly weakened. But such a reading is
speculative at best.

7. The System and its Pillars

It is presumably an adequacy condition on the interpretation of the work of
any systematic philosopher that the work be interpreted in light of the
central tenets of that philosopher's system. The interpretive problem of
course is that for almost any such philosopher there are controversies about
what these central tenets are. It is uncontroversial that Descartes
sometimes speaks of possibility and necessity. What is not so
uncontroversial is what he is talking about when he talks about these. In
particular, if Descartes is committed to the view that there is unactualized
possible being, then either (1) the alleged parts of his system that seem to
disallow such being are not parts of his system, (2) the parts of his system
that seem to disallow such being do not really disallow it, or (3) he is not a
wholly systematic philosopher.

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