Archive for April, 2019

Leibnizian Supercomprehension

In a recent paper, Juan Garcia has argued that Leibniz is, in an important sense, “a friend of Molinism.”1 For those who are familiar with contemporary versions of Molinism (e.g., Flint), this suggestion is rather surprising, since Leibniz is clearly a theological determinist: he holds that God chooses every detail of the actual world. Further, a key feature of Molinism (particularly as it is understood in recent analytic philosophy) is the idea that God’s options for creation are limited by contingent but prevolitional counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. The contrary assumption, that God could have actualized any possible world, was dubbed by Plantinga, ‘Leibniz’s Lapse’. Now, Plantinga is clearly unfair in calling this a ‘lapse’: it’s a theoretical commitment Leibniz embraces clear-sightedly, with awareness that there are alternatives to it and that it has some implausible-looking consequences. Nevertheless, Leibniz does embrace this view. As a result, Leibniz surrenders the two main advantages typically assigned to Molinism in recent analytic philosophy: the ability to combine theological libertarianism with strong providence, and any Plantinga-style free will defence.

Still, Leibniz’s view does have significant similarities with Molinism and seem to employ some Molinist strategies. The main burden of Garcia’s article is to argue that Leibniz holds that counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are contingent and that God knows them prevolitionally. This seems right in a certain sense or to a certain extent, but the key issue (which Garcia does not discuss) is how Leibniz can maintain this, and here Leibniz’s notoriously weak notion of contingency is doing real work.

According to traditional Molinism, an agent’s essence or character does not include all the facts about what the agent would do in hypothetical situations, because this would render the agent’s actions in those situations necessary. Nevertheless, God ‘supercomprehends’ this essence or character in order to know facts that go beyond what is included in it. It is in this way that God knows what the agent would do.2

This doctrine is rather obscure. It leaves unexplained how or why these facts could be true of this essence. (This is, of course, a version of the ‘grounding objection’.) It also seems to have God seeing in the essence something that isn’t there.

Leibniz, however, is able to give an account of how this works. In the Arnauld correspondence, Leibniz says that, in deciding to create Adam, God employs a ‘complete individual concept’ (CIC) of Adam which includes, essentially, an entire possible world. This is because the CIC must include everything that can be truly predicated of Adam, and there are true propositions such as Adam lived before I wrote this blog post. Hence, my writing this post is included in Adam’s CIC.

How, then, can any of Adam’s actions be contingent? In a certain sense they can’t, and Leibniz makes important use of this in his discussions of the problem of evil. (See the discussion of Judas in the Discourse on Metaphysics and the discussion of Sextus at the end of Theodicy.) Arnauld, therefore, objects that Leibniz’s view falsely implies that he (Arnauld) is necessarily a celibate theologian. In fact (Arnauld says) he could instead have been a married physician. Leibniz responds by diagnosing a kind of ambiguity: this Arnauld (the one in the actual world) is necessarily a celibate theologian, but there are other Arnaulds, in other possible worlds, who are married physicians. (I’ve written about this before.) This, according to Leibniz, gives us enough contingency for moral responsibility and so forth.

This ambiguity, it seems to me, is what allows Leibniz to combine these Molinist principles with theological determinism. God knows precisely what will happen if God creates this Arnauld. At the same time, it is contingent that Arnauld, in these circumstances, becomes a celibate theologian.

On the other hand, Leibniz’s strategy does not make what is perhaps the most characteristic move of both historical and contemporary Molinism: he does not open up any middle ground between natural knowledge and free knowledge. That Arnauld, placed in these circumstances, would freely decide to become a celibate theologian is true (on the interpretation on which it is contingent) because God decided to create this Arnauld, rather than one of those other Arnaulds. Hence this is part of God’s free knowledge. That this Arnauld freely so decides is necessary, since it follows from his CIC. (Leibniz often seems like he wants to wriggle out of the conclusion that this is necessary, even when we specify this Arnauld, but the comments about Judas and Sextus and so forth seem to push the other direction.) Thus it is Leibniz’s view that counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are systematically ambiguous, and on one interpretation they are part of God’s natural knowledge while on another they are part of God’s free knowledge.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)


  1. A while back, Brandon Watson also suggested, in a blog comment, that Leibniz can be understood as endorsing a kind of ‘modified Molinism’.
  2. I rely on Adams for this characterization of ‘supercomprehension’.

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At the beginning of the final (and by far the longest) chapter of his 1733 Divine Analogy, Peter Browne reports that “JUST as this Treatise was finished and sent away to the Press, I was very accidentaly surprised with a threatning Appearance of a powerful Attack upon the Doctrine of Divine Analogy, from an anonymous Author under the Disguise of a Minute Philosopher” (p. 374). The reference is, of course, to Berkeley’s 1732 Alciphron: or, the Minute Philosopher. Browne proceeds to offer a lengthy critique of the account of religious language found in Berkeley’s fourth and seventh dialogues.

Browne correctly recognizes that Berkeley’s key thesis in the seventh dialogue is that “words may be significant although they do not stand for ideas” (Alciphron, §7.8). Browne interprets Berkeley as subsequently strengthening this thesis ultimately to arrive at the claim “that Words may be Significant, tho’ they signify Nothing” (Divine Analogy, 534). Browne’s reading of Berkeley here is, I believe, correct.

Browne further notes, again correctly, that Berkeley aims to secure the meaningfulness of words by means of their ability to influence our lives. As Berkeley puts it, “A discourse, therefore, that directs how to act or excites to the doing or forbearance of an action may, it seems, be useful and significant, although the words whereof it is composed should not bring each a distinct idea into our minds” (Alciphron, §7.8).

Browne finds this notion, and particularly its application to religion, so shocking that he often seems to be sputtering with rage. (Actually, it seems that “sputtering with rage” is Browne’s normal literary persona; Berkeley is far from being the only object of his ire.) The hastily written chapter, added in response to Berkeley, goes on for some 180 pages (more than a third of the book) and runs from one objection to another in a rather disorganized pattern. Further, Browne never spends so much as a moment contemplating how Berkeley might respond to his objections, or indeed whether Berkeley might have already anticipated and responded to the objection. Nevertheless, Browne’s remarks are occasionally insightful.

I discovered today, in the ‘insightful’ category, an objection of Browne’s that passes rather quickly which I hadn’t noticed before:

Surely if there be any common Sence remaining it will inform us, that it is some Idea or Conception or Notion in the Mind, affixed to the Word or excited by it, which gives it all its Significancy[,] Life and Activity; and which renders it a Ruling Principle, as he calls it [Alciphron, §7.4], for the Conduct of Men’s Faith and Practice … where [people] have [no ideas] annexed to [words] or excited by them, they are downright Nonsence; and of no real Influence, Use, or Signification. But if it were true, as this Author asserts, that Words without any Ideas or Conceptions belonging to them could realy affect and move us; such Emotions would be merely Mechanical: At Best Men must be affected as mere Animals only; they would be moved when there was nothing but Wind or Sound to move them; they must be wrought upon and disposed without any Concurrence of Thinking or Reason; and they would be intirely under the Guidance and Direction of Tones and Accents of the Voice, without any Rational, Moral, or Religious Influence and Meaning. (Divine Analogy, 536-537)

A. D. Woozley characterized Berkeley as holding “that not only does intelligent and intelligible handling of [words and other signs] not require a concomitant shadow sequence of images in the stream of consciousness, but it does not require any accompaniment at all” (pp. 431-432). Browne’s objection is that such a view leaves no room for rational agency. If I, as an agent, am to respond to the words I hear, this response must be mediated by some kind of cognitive process. In the absence of such a cognitive process, my response to the words would be merely ‘mechanical’, like a response to a posthypnotic suggestion. This would be particularly disastrous in the case of religious language which is meant (according to both Berkeley and Browne) to be productive of moral virtue.

Browne’s concerns would only have been heightened if he had seen the discussion of ‘reward’ talk in Berkeley’s unpublished Manuscript Introduction (see folios 22-25). As David Berman has suggested (p. 162), this sounds a lot like Pavlovian conditioning: frequent association between the word ‘reward’ and positive outcomes, beginning from childhood, has made us habitually respond to it in a certain way. What Berkeley really needs to counter Browne here is an account of agency that allows that these sorts of responses directly to words, unmediated by ideas, could really count as actions of mine. I have previously tried to gather such an account from Berkeley’s works. (Browne is a little puzzled by Berkeley’s insistence in this context on the inactivity of ideas, but this is what guarantees that, even in the case of a habitual response to ideas the mind must be understood as acting rather than being acted upon.) However, when the issue is raised by Alciphron, immediately following the discussion of religious mysteries, Euphranor gives a rather deflationary account of moral agency, with which Browne could hardly be expected to be satisfied (Alciphron, §§7.19-20).

This observation also mustn’t be separated from the broader context of the debate about religious mysteries. Toland and other religious radicals had been arguing that these mysterious doctrines, though strictly speaking meaningless, operated as tools of oppression, used by the clergy to produce blind obedience in the laity. Berkeley is arguing in Alciphron that these doctrines are meaningful precisely insofar as they shape feeling and action. The question is, if words can shape our actions without the mediation of ideas, are the actions really still ours? Are we not being operated upon, as by a hypnotist? And if we are being operated upon in this way, then aren’t the ‘hypnotists’ who wield these words (i.e., the clergy) guilty of just the kind of tyrannical domination alleged by Toland?

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

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