Knowing causes: Descartes on the world of matter

Philosophica 76 (2005)
In this essay, we discuss how Descartes arrives at his mature view of material causation. Descartes’ position changes over time in some very radical ways. The last section spells out his final position as to how causation works in the world of material objects. When considering Descartes’ causal theories, it is useful to distinguish between ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ causation. The vertical perspective addresses God’s relation to creation. God is essential being, and every being other than God depends upon God in order to exist and to continue in existence.Thus, from the vertical perspective, the act of creating and fact of coming into existence are co-extensive notions. This metaphysical/theological framework is the basis of Descartes’ commitment to three interrelated notions: that genuine causes and effects occur simultaneously; that causing is appropriately the case only when the cause is acting; and the view that God is the efficient, total, and continuous cause of everything that exists and every action that occurs. So from the vertical perspective, things are nothing without God’s continuous creation, and there is a problem in articulating how they are said to have independent being and causal efficacy. It is in terms of these commitments that Descartes’ views on horizontal, or material, causation must be approached. We will make apparent the radical extent to which his account of intra-worldly causation abandons his earlier and more traditional views about material causation. To this end we discuss Descartes’ journey to his mature position by emphasizing the growing epistemic limitations of his philosophy, which culminate in what we call his epistemic stance.
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